Define your topic for investigation (questions or assumptions).
Identify the people you will interview, for contextual inquiry the ideal participant group is rarely a group of random objective people (“warm bodies”). It is more often a specific target audience. See our recruiting guide for more information.
3. SET IT UP
Follow up with participants to set a time to meet them in the environment where you want to observe them.
Based on the topic for investigation, there should be a clear goal for what you want to observe in the participant’s natural environment. Define the tasks you are interested in observing (can be “do x”, but also can be to just follow for a day of work). Plan and prepare questions to ask around the tasks you are interested in observing.
Go to the agreed location, introduce yourself and your research goal. Ask participants to do their daily tasks as they always would and observe in a non-intrusive manner. Ask questions at opportune moments and try to stay in the background as much as possible. The goal is to try to get them comfortable with you being there so they don’t completely change their way of doing things. Record your findings (video, photos, notes) – contextual inquiry can be difficult to observe in real time and often requires revisiting one’s notes and recordings.
Debrief on the observations. With a full understanding of each participant’s behavior, synthesize all observations and create patterns over time to understand a blended (but not “normalized”) picture. Extract key findings: what was surprising or unexpected? What assumptions were confirmed? Use anomalies and edge cases to push your own product concept. Avoid confirmation bias by forcing yourself to move beyond your current product concept. Ensure your team is represented; multidisciplinary backgrounds give different perspectives and see opportunities and challenges better.
Create a concise summary document that is useful to you and can also be used to keep stakeholders up to date.