Contextual Inquiry

The Basic Idea

Imagine you’re a designer at a tech startup and you’ve just finished the final prototype of a new digital workspace tool. To understand its real-world use, you partner with a marketing agency, offering them free access. In exchange, you ask that they allow you to conduct some observational research and interview the staff on their experience with the new tool. Initially, the team’s excited about everything you have incorporated. However, once they start implementing it across more nuanced situations they provide some critical comments about how the tool’s complex features are leading to confusion and inefficiency. 


As it turns out, testing in the corporate environment was the key to uncovering issues you hadn’t spotted when testing the software. You realize something didn’t click once the product was implemented in their environment. Now you can return to your office armed with the insights to make the required changes.


Contextual inquiry is a research method used in user experience (UX) design to understand how people use a product or service in their real-world environment and context. By directly observing users and conducting semi-structured interviews in their natural settings, designers can understand the specific needs and challenges that users face with their products.1 For instance, in our hypothetical scenario, it was beneficial to observe and interview the marketing agency staff in their everyday environment. Conducting a contextual inquiry session highlights how your workspace tool wasn’t as user-friendly as you expected.

Contextual inquiry is based on four principles:2

  • Context: The interview is performed in the environment where the client will be using the product. For example their home, office, or shared workspace. These feedback sessions have adapted to remote work, with the ability to conduct interviews virtually.
  • Partnership: It’s important to create a comfortable environment and foster clear lines of communication between the researcher(s) and participant(s) so that everyone completely understands what’s going on. It can be a challenge to behave naturally when met with someone new in your environment, this can skew results and lead to null findings. All participants must provide informed consent and feel comfortable with the process. 
  • Mutual Interpretation: Feedback is necessary in a research method like contextual inquiry. The researcher will usually reiterate the feedback delivered by the participants to ensure they have accurately captured their views and feelings, this allows them to clarify for the most accurate results.
  • Focus: Although a comfortable environment should be created, the conversation shouldn’t drift off onto other topics and should be centered around the product and user navigation/use.

With those principles in mind, the usual steps are as follows:1

  1. The primer:  Involves a casual introduction that allows the participant to become comfortable with the researcher and the space around them.
  2. The transition: The researcher explains what will happen during the observation/interview. This typically includes advising them about the types of activities they'll be observed performing, the kind of questions they might be asked, and the overall goals of the study.
  3. Contextual interview: Direct observation and learning is conducted. This is followed by a one-on-one discussion. 
  4. Wrap-up: The researcher summarizes their findings and asks for final confirmation and/or clarification.
  5. Data analysis. the findings are translated and interpreted to inform any potential changes.

Contextual inquiry is useful during the early stages of product development. This is especially true when there’s a complex environment like a hospital. Immersion in these settings allows researchers to capture how unpredictable events that occur in complex environments directly affect product navigation or usage.

Today, marketing organizations must do more than appeal to an undifferentiated mass market. They must learn to deliver to individual customers. Doing so requires that they better understand the context in which those customers live.


Sara L. Beckman and Michael Barry, from Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedding Design Thinking3

Key Terms

  • User Experience (UX): UX describes the overall experience a user has when interacting with a product, system, or service. The goal of UX design is to create simple, effective, relevant, and overall enjoyable experiences for the user. UX design considers the why, what, and how of a product from the user's perspective.4
  • UX Design: The process of designing products, systems, or services with the user's experience in mind. It involves a comprehensive understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their skills, and also their limitations. It also considers business goals and objectives.4
  • Ethnographic field study: Research method with origins in anthropology but widely used across various disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and design. It involves observing and actively engaging in the daily lives and activities of participants within their own environment. The main goal is to gain meaningful insights into how cultural, social and individual factors influence behavior and beliefs.5
  • Direct observation: Method used in exploratory and descriptive research. It usually requires the researcher to observe a participant without speaking or interacting with them as they perform certain actions. Recording, taking notes, pictures, and any complementary sources are encouraged. Observation can be structured or unstructured, the latter requires a significant amount of experience.6
  • Semi-structured interviews: A type of interview– performed during contextual inquiry– that provides a loose structure and consists of open-ended questions allowing the participant to answer in detail. For example: How do you feel about the product’s appearance? 
  • Structured interviews: Type of interview with specific questions, which mostly have predefined choices. For example: Do you think the product’s appearance is boring, attractive, or are you indifferent?
  • Unstructured interviews: Term used to describe a type of interview that flows more like a conversation and requires a bit more of “improvisation” from the researcher. However, some might dislike this term as all interviews require some sort of plan and structure.

History

Originating in the late 1980s as part of the participatory design movement, contextual inquiry was developed by the founder of InContext, Hugh Beyer, and computer scientist Karen Holtzblatt as a replacement for traditional research models (e.g: focus groups, and diary studies). They believed other methodologies couldn’t accurately capture present-moment information, as they usually depend on the user’s ability to remember and explain a past experience. Beyer & Holtzblatt thought of contextual inquiry as an apprentice-master process. The researcher or designer plays an apprentice and learns from the user as they navigate or utilize a product. By observing users in the present moment, depth is added to market research.7

It has since evolved into a foundational aspect of UX research, widely used across various industries to inform empathetic and effective design solutions.

Consequences

Performing this style of market research can provide unique benefits for your business and product development. By digging deep into the user experience, contextual inquiry sparks empathy and provides a vivid glimpse into users' experiences and viewpoints, offering rich insights. 

This method is inherently user-driven, placing participants in the driver's seat during interviews and adapting products based on their input. This dynamic makes them feel as though they're leading the conversation, significantly strengthening the connection between user and researcher. When executed correctly, participants are comfortable enough to be honest and share their true opinions. Also, contextual inquiry involves a crucial step where researchers verify their findings with participants, ensuring that the insights genuinely reflect users' realities.8

Contextual inquiry sessions are particularly beneficial when the goal is to dive deep into the environment and experiences of the user. This technique shines in scenarios where understanding the subtle nuances of user interaction with a product in their natural setting can lead to breakthrough innovations or significantly improve existing services.

By integrating contextual inquiry into the research phase, businesses can ensure their products are not only technically sound but also resonate with the people they're designed for, providing a solid foundation for creating solutions that are truly aligned with user needs.

Controversies

Although the benefits sound great, researchers must be very careful not to project their own biases when using this method. For example, confirmation bias is quite common, especially in research. We can mitigate the effects of biases through thorough training and by ensuring that all research documentation is kept and accessible to the team (such as field notes and recordings). These best practices allow other researchers and analysts to interpret the results, gaining a wider understanding of the findings.

Additionally, the pandemic has led to a shift in online work, which has benefits and drawbacks. In terms of contextual inquiry, Holtzblatt and Beyer originally emphasized that in-person interactions were crucial for gaining a complete understanding of users' body language and interactions. Is it possible to get the full picture through a video call?

Contextual inquiry requires extensive observations and interviews, which might make participants feel uncomfortable. Often feelings of unease lead to skewed results as participants may alter their behavior or responses to align with perceived expectations (known as response bias) or social norms. In the same vein, privacy must be taken seriously, entering someone’s home or workplace raises ethical concerns that must be addressed. Consent and transparency are absolutely crucial. 

Finally, although contextual inquiry provides deep and accurate insights into user behaviors and needs, it is laborious, expensive, and time-consuming. This can lead to gaps as companies may not have all the resources to carry out multiple field studies—this is especially concerning in diverse markets where many different people and firms are using the product.  There needs to be a balance between depth of insight and reaching broader user populations. 

Case Study: Unlocking Physicians' Needs

In 1995, a research team from Washington University and BJC Health System conducted contextual inquiries across six out of 15 hospitals part of the BJC Health System.9 The main goal was to gather comprehensive requirements for a Clinical Information System (CIS) directly reflecting physicians’ true needs. A CIS is a system or software that gathers, stores and updates clinical data on patients.10

The actual contextual inquiry sessions lasted between one to six hours and by the end of the study they had approximately 300 hours of these sessions. During sessions, physicians explained their steps and needs as they performed everyday tasks and answered a couple of questions from the research team. These sessions were both inside their office space (longer interviews) and during inpatient settings. A very important factor was that researchers part of this study were familiar with medical terms which took down language barriers.

Findings generated 542 requirements that could be summarized into the following:  physicians required not just access to clinical information but a system that supported the complex process of summarizing, manipulating, and annotating data to enhance patient care. Two other significant requirements were the ability to easily access the CIS and to efficiently review radiology reports, as the latter significantly wasted time in their current workflow.

Performing contextual inquiry sessions provided enough information for the team to prototype and develop a Clinical Information System that followed physicians’ needs and proved to be more efficient than the old system.

Related TDL Content

Focus Groups

Read about another research method that enables the collection of rich, detailed insights by encouraging open discussions among participants in a group setting, facilitating a deeper understanding of their opinions, behaviors, and preferences.

References

  1. Salazar, K. (2020). Contextual Inquiry: Inspire Design by Observing and Interviewing Users in Their Context. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved March 12, 2024, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/contextual-inquiry/
  2. UserPeek. (n.d.). Contextual Inquiry In UX: What Is, How To, and When Do You Use It. Retrieved March 12, 2024, from https://userpeek.com/blog/contextual-inquiry/#t-1592897320488
  3. Beckmam, S.L., Barry, M. (2007). Innovation as a Learning Process: EMBEDDING DESIGN THINKING. Retrieved March 12, 2024, from https://isfcolombia.uniandes.edu.co/images/documentos/designthinkingdoc.pdf
  4. Interaction Design Foundation. (n.d.). UX Design. Retrieved March 12, 2024, from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/ux-design
  5. University of Cambridge. (2023). Ethnographic and field study techniques. School of Technology Research Ethics Guidance. https://www.tech.cam.ac.uk/research-ethics/school-technology-research-ethics-guidance/ethnographic-and-field-study-techniques
  6. Marketing, Management & Research. (n.d.) Direct Observation.  Retrieved March 12, 2024, from https://qspmarketing.pt/en/research-techniques/direct-observation/
  7. Geary, T.M., (2022). Contextual Inquiry. Retrieved March 12, 2024, from https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/design/chapter10.pdf
  8. Think Design. (n.d.). Contextual Inquiry: The In-Depth Research Method. Retrieved March 12, 2024, from https://think.design/user-design-research/contextual-inquiry/#:~:text=Contextual%20inquiry%20is%20literally%20inquiry,or%20an%20ethnographic%20observation%20method.
  9. Coble, J. M., Maffitt, J. S., Orland, M. J., & Kahn, M. G. (1995). Contextual inquiry: discovering physicians' true needs. Proceedings. Symposium on Computer Applications in Medical Care, 469–473.
  10. Talking HealthTech. (2021). Clinical Information System (CIS). Retrieved march 12, 2024, from https://www.talkinghealthtech.com/glossary/clinical-information-system-cis

About the Author

Read Next

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?