Contextual Inquiry

What is it?

Contextual Inquiry is an ethnographic research method that helps to understand what people do and why they do it. The method was created as a way of capturing work's complexities: information flow, the cultural qualities of a working environment, and the sequence of routine tasks. Contextual Inquiry relies on three main principles: focus, context, and partnership. Researchers establish a focus for the information they want to learn and as a filter for subsequent actions and activities. The focus helps identify the context: the specific environment to be studied. This may be an office, a home, or even a place as specific as an airplane or a coffee shop. The focus also directs selection of participants for research, and it is with these participants that the researchers will try to form a partnership. This partnership is characterized by qualities of apprenticeship—the researcher is an apprentice, hoping to learn as much as possible from the master. This education occurs by watching real work and by probing with questions.

How do I do it?

  1. Identify a focus. What do you hope to learn? A focus may be broad, as in "We are seeking to understand how people save money." Or it may be specific, as in "We are seeking to understand how people manage their credit cards each month and what relationship families have with budgets and financial limits." Derive your focus from the various constraints of the work; relate it to the human opportunities that you will explore.
  2. Use your newly identified focus to determine the context you seek to understand. The context might be a physical environment—literally, a specific business or place. Or it might be a digital or theoretical environment—a website, an online community, or a community or group. To make subsequent steps easier, define the context with as much detail as possible.
  3. Identify the participants you seek to work with— the various stakeholders, constituents, workers, managers, or consumers who make up the given context. Again, provide as much detail as possible.
  4. Reach out to the potential participants and schedule a time to observe them. Unlike traditional research forms that extract the participant from the context of the work or activities, in contextual inquiry, you watch real activities in their normal context, and use these activities to provoke questions and answers. When you attempt to schedule meetings, make clear to potential participants that you intend to observe work. This will be a strange idea to them, and so you'll need to explain how watching work helps you more than simply asking and answering questions. Gaining access to the context is often the hardest part of the entire contextual inquiry process.

As you begin to conduct the contextual inquiry, consider these basic guidelines:

  • Suspend judgment. As you attempt to form a partnership with your participants, consider how you can prove to them —that you truly want to learn. This means that when you discover inefficiencies, problems, or strange behavior, simply note them for later interpretation rather than—calling attention to them, attempting to correct them, or implying that they are wrong.
  • Be curious. To learn, you need to ask questions, and probe for details. When your participant mentions "he", find out who "he" is. If the participant uses an artifact, ask about it. Try to extract as much information from the participant as possible by asking as many open ended questions as you can.
  • Have a plan, but be ready to deviate from it. For example, plan enough questions to fill the amount of time you've scheduled even though you may decide not to ask them; ideally your observations of the participant working will inspire new questions on the spot.
  • Treat the participants with respect. Remember that you are literally and figuratively intruding on someone's life, so—be courteous, supportive, forgiving, and empathetic.

When should I use it?

Contextual Inquiry is a broad method you can apply in a number of contexts. It can act as the centerpiece method for your research and understanding. For example, you can conduct a contextual inquiry when you want to learn how people do things—how they complete their work, how they spend their time off, how they purchase things, or how they manage their finances. You might conduct it at the beginning of product development to help you understand users' needs and desires. But contextual inquiry also identifies the vocabulary people use to describe things, so you can also use it throughout the development of products, systems, or services to ensure that users understand your design intent. And you can use it to identify how people think about a given problem, or when you sense an opportunity for design-led intervention but are unsure about the or details.

What is the output, and how can I use it?

Contextual inquiry begets data—a great deal of it. The entire contextual inquiry is often recorded, using an audio or a video recorder or both, and the recordings transcribed. You can then create models as a more vivid, visual representation of the transcription. These models may emphasize workflow, influences, and power dynamics or the artifacts, services, and systems that support work.

Where can I learn more?

Read Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt, the method's developers.

Continue to the Next Chapter:
Insight through Contextual Inquiry: Pocket Hotline
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