Methods > Gather Insights > Contextual Inquiry

Contextual Inquiry

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Purpose

  • Understand behaviors in the context of where people actually perform the activities you want to solve.
  • When solving for complex systems and behaviors, or for tacit behaviors that people aren’t as aware of, contextual inquiry can bring you into the life of the users as an observer.
  • What you mean when you say f.i. “office space” and what they understand, can be two different things. Contextual inquiry removes those personal translations we make in interviews.

Outcome

  • Empathy and real life understanding of user situation lead to better understanding the problem and how to solve it.

Time

20 - 25 days

Participants

2 people

Difficulty

Hard
Tip: it’s best to get an expert on board to help you run these methods.

Materials

Recording device (audio/video) Camera Release forms, note taking material, post its for synthesis

Detailed Steps

1. DEFINE
Define your topic for investigation (questions or assumptions).

2. RECRUIT
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.

4. PLAN
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.

5. CONDUCT
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.

6. SYNTHESIZE
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.

7. COMMUNICATE
Create a concise summary document that is useful to you and can also be used to keep stakeholders up to date.