Learn how a tool, system, or piece of functionality is used.
Use this play when
Contextual inquiries are helpful in many different phases of research, depending on the questions you’re trying to answer.
You can use them to help understand use cases (and environments) for existing products and tools, and also to help define the environments for new product ideas.
Contextual inquiry is valuable at any phase, and ideally, the early phase of design (or discovery) for a product would always include contextual inquiry, to help inform research and design of the environments and pitfalls users may currently be facing when completing their tasks.
Materials & tools
Note pads, pens, Post-its
Most importantly, a list of target users who will allow research/design to come watch them perform tasks in their environment.
With technology advances, we are often able to "watch" participants complete tasks remotely. If this option is available, it can drastically cut down the time needed to plan (and travel) to complete these observations. The UXR team has several options for completing remote observations if site visits aren’t feasible. Note: Be sure to record what tools the participants are using throughout the session (i.e., notepads, calculators, audio / visual, etc).
Contextual inquiries involve keen observation and (at times) interviewing skills. There will be times when you do have some background information on the tasks you will be observing, and you may already have specific questions for the participants.
In that case, write down any assumptions, questions, or expectations you have in a loose outline before the observation session. This will help guide your thoughts and keep the sessions moving forward.
In other instances, where you don’t have much background knowledge, the observation itself can lead to the questions or clarifications needed during the sessions. In cases where there are not a lot of upfront questions, you may simply sit back and watch the interactions occurring and interject with questions as they arise. This type of research will often yield more qualitative data than quantitative.
Qualitative data like this may require lots of note taking, pictures, recordings, etc., so it’s a good idea to have more than one researcher present to make sure you don’t miss any of the interactions between the participants and the tools they use.
The analysis of this qualitative data can be a bit tricky, but looking for themes and commonalities will be much easier if the data collection is thorough and reliable. Note taking and/or recordings are vital to accomplish the analysis.
Note: The preparation for the observation sessions may not take much time. Finding participants to observe may take the most time. Set aside ample time to find and set up meeting times with target users!
Beyer, H. & Holtzblatt, K. (1998). Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann Publisher