ⓘ Contextual inquiry is a user-centered design research method, part of the contextual design methodology. A contextual inquiry interview is usually structured as ..


ⓘ Contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is a user-centered design research method, part of the contextual design methodology. A contextual inquiry interview is usually structured as an approximately two-hour, one-on-one interaction in which the researcher watches the user in the course of the users normal activities and discusses those activities with the user.


1. Description

Contextual inquiry defines four principles to guide the interaction:

  • Interpretation - The researcher shares interpretations and insights with the user during the interview. The user may expand or correct the researchers understanding.
  • Partnership - User and researcher collaborate to understand the users work. The interview alternates between observing the user as he or she works and discussing what the user did and why.
  • Context - Interviews are conducted in the users actual workplace. The researcher watches users do their own work tasks and discusses any artifacts they generate or use with them. In addition, the researcher gathers detailed re-tellings of specific past events when they are relevant to the project focus.
  • Focus - The researcher steers the interaction towards topics which are relevant to the teams scope.

If specific tasks are important, the user may be asked to perform those tasks.

A contextual interview generally has three phases, which may not be formally separated in the interview itself:

  • The introduction - The researcher introduces him or herself and may request permission to record and start recording. The researcher promises confidentiality to the user, solicits a high-level overview of the users work, and consults with the user on the specific tasks the user will work on during the interview.
  • The wrap-up - The researcher summarizes what was gleaned from the interview, offering the user a chance to give final corrections and clarifications.
  • The body of the interview - The researcher observes the work and discusses the observations with the user. The researcher takes notes, usually handwritten, of everything that happens.

Before a contextual inquiry, user visits must be set up. The users selected must be doing work of interest currently, must be able to have the researcher come into their workplace wherever it is, and should represent a wide range of different types of users. A contextual inquiry may gather data from as few as 4 users for a single, small task to 30 or more.

Following a contextual inquiry field interview, the method defines interpretation sessions as a way to analyze the data. In an interpretation session, 3-8 team members gather to hear the researcher re-tell the story of the interview in order. As the interview is re-told, the team add individual insights and facts as notes. They also may capture representations of the users activities as work models defined in the Contextual design methodology. The notes may be organized using an affinity diagram. Many teams use the contextual data to generate in-depth personas.

Contextual inquiries may be conducted to understand the needs of a market and to scope the opportunities. They may be conducted to understand the work of specific roles or tasks, to learn the responsibilities and structure of the role. Or they may be narrowly focused on specific tasks, to learn the details necessary to support that task.


2. Advantages

Contextual inquiry offers the following advantages over other customer research methods:

  • The information produced by contextual inquiry is highly detailed. Marketing methods such as surveys produce high-level information but not the detailed work practice data needed to design products. It is very difficult to get this level of detail any other way.
  • Contextual inquiry is a very flexible technique. Contextual inquiries have been conducted in homes, offices, operating theaters, automobiles, factory floors, construction sites, maintenance tunnels, and chip fabrication labs, among many other places.
  • The open-ended nature of the interaction makes it possible to reveal tacit knowledge, knowledge about their own work process that users themselves are not consciously aware of. Tacit knowledge has traditionally been very hard for researchers to uncover.
  • The information produced by contextual inquiry is highly reliable. Surveys and questionnaires assume the questions they include are important. Traditional usability tests assume the tasks the user is asked to perform are relevant. Contextual inquiries focus on the work users need to accomplish, done their way - so it is always relevant to the user. And because its their own work, the users are more committed to it than they would be to a sample task.

3. Limitations

Contextual inquiry has the following limitations:

  • Contextual inquiry is resource-intensive. It requires travel to the informants site, a few hours with each user, and then a few more hours to interpret the results of the interview.

4. History of the method

Contextual inquiry was first referenced as a "phenomenological research method" in a paper by Whiteside, Bennet, and Holtzblatt in 1988, which lays out much of the justification for using qualitative research methods in design. It was first fully described as a method in its own right by Wixon, Holtzblatt, and Knox in 1990, where comparisons with other research methods are offered. It is most fully described by Holtzblatt and Beyer in 1995.

Contextual inquiry was extended to the full contextual design methodology by Beyer and Holtzblatt between 1988 and 1992. Contextual design was briefly described by them for Communications of the ACM in 1995, and was fully described in Contextual Design in 1997.

Work models as a way of capturing representations of user work during interpretation sessions were first briefly described by Beyer and Holtzblatt in 1993 and then more fully in 1995.

  • previously installed Contextual design, user - centered design process developed by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt Contextual inquiry user - centered design
  • steps: contextual inquiry interpretation, data consolidation, visioning, storyboarding, user environment design, and prototyping. Contextual inquiry is a
  • contextual inquiry data consolidation and analytics, visioning, storyboarding, user environment design, and prototyping. Contextual inquiry is a field
  • phases alive all the time: contextual inquiry participatory design, product design, prototype as hypothesis. Contextual inquiry refers to the exploration
  • Contextual integrity is a theory of privacy developed by Helen Nissenbaum and presented in her book Privacy In Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity
  • to gather the information focus groups, individual interviews, contextual inquiry ethnographic techniques, etc. But all involve a series of structured
  • relationships, for review and analysis. It is also frequently used in contextual inquiry as a way to organize notes and insights from field interviews. It
  • studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor, or even the more recent contextual inquiry and Contextual design methods, which are based in context - specific learning
  • Intersubjective psychoanalysis suggests that all interactions must be considered contextually interactions between the patient analyst or child parent cannot be seen
  • interaction, a post - Hartree Fock method used in computational chemistry Contextual inquiry a user - centered design research method Collective intelligence, a
  • or scenarios. Correctness may be based on logical projections, may be contextual or arrived at through basic knowledge, conjecture, inference, projection