Contextual Inquiry

What is a contextual inquiry?

A contextual inquiry is a UX method that is growing in definition. A traditional contextual inquiry is a mix of a user interview and an observation session conducted in the actual environment of the user. Traditionally as the researcher, you would go to their place of work and observe them as they complete tasks, asking them questions along the way. This allows you to capture more context and insights than those that might be obtained during an interview in an unfamiliar location such as your office. Basically, you're asking them questions in the ultimate context, which is why it is called a contextual inquiry.

The biggest problem with this method is that many companies have users all over the world, and it’s not cost-effective to visit a handful of them in a week when trying to get context into their behaviour while using your product. Because of this, remote contextual inquiries are becoming more and more popular, where researchers can screenshare with their participants and observe their actions while asking them questions along the way. You can still capture a lot of the context this way, and it’s much more cost-effective.

A woman watching a man work on his laptop.

What do you need for a contextual inquiry?

timeTIME

  • Time per Session: ~30 Minutes to 2 Hours
  • Number of Sessions: ~5 to start. You may need more until you start seeing solid patterns in your observations.
  • Time for Analysis: ~2-4 hours per Session

materialsMATERIALS

  • A set list of tasks or questions
  • Something to record notes
  • Audio recorder
  • Screen recording software (if remote)
  • Anything to help record the participant or environment is great to have

How do you run a contextual inquiry?

A woman watching another woman work on her computer.
  1. Step 1: Determine who you want feedback from

    Your target participants may change depending on your business goals. For example, if your goal is to increase monetization from users within their first 30 days, you would probably want to target new users that signed up less than 30 days ago.
  2. Step 2: Determine what you want feedback about

    Are you looking for feedback on your entire product? Or maybe just the checkout flow? It’s good to have a list of predefined tasks and questions ready so you can ask them to complete some specific ones if they don’t touch on certain areas you wanted to get some feedback on. You should ask the same questions of everyone you are working with. If you don’t prepare questions ahead of time, the questions you ask will be ad hoc, and you won’t ask everyone the same questions, which will make it harder to analyze and compare. This doesn’t mean you won’t ask additional questions, it just means that you will ask the same core questions.
  3. Step 3: Have the participant go through typical tasks and constantly ask “why”

    In general, you will want to watch them go through their daily workflow and think out loud as they do. Have them explain or teach you the reasons for their decisions and processes.

    Watch what products they start with, ask them why they use those. Take note when they start using your product and ask them why they started using it then. Once they are done with your product and move to another, ask them why they changed products.

    It’s important to observe and note what they are doing, but it’s more important to understand why they are doing it, as you will be able to pull more meaningful insights from that. Keep encouraging them to think out loud so you don’t have to constantly ask them questions.
  4. Step 4: Take notes on pain points or gaps

    Take note of any point in their flow where they seem to struggle or are confused. Maybe they are spending a lot of time working on one step. Maybe they accidentally navigated to the wrong part of your product. Maybe they exported data from your product and spent an hour manipulating it in excel. These pain points and gaps are usually easy to spot and can turn into easy wins for your team.
  5. Step 5: Summarize your findings from the session

    Once complete, summarize the session and share it with your team and stakeholders.
  6. Step 6: Compare your findings from other sessions

    This is the longest part of the analysis. After you have completed more than one, you can then compare the findings across different participants. Highlight the common findings or the insights that you feel need to stand out, then summarize it all in one final report for your team.

    Affinity Diagrams are a great way to cross reference findings from a round of contextual inquiries, but you may need something more scalable and permanent if you plan on cross referencing findings from multiple research projects over long periods of time. I personally like AirTable for my research findings repository.

Tips for great Contextual Inquiries

  • At the start of the session, run them through a formal script that explains to them why you’re there, what is expected of them, what they should expect of you, and to ask for permission to begin recording.
  • If you’re allowed to record the session, for in person inquiries, use audio and video recording and try to capture what they do on their screen, as well as their reactions. If it’s a remote inquiry, make sure to have them share their screen with you and record it.
  • If you cannot get permission to record an inquiry, bring a second interviewer to help with note-taking.
  • Schedule sessions for relevant times of day. For example, if your app will help people find food trucks, schedule your sessions for around lunch or dinner time.
  • Spend a lot of time on your tasks and questions list. Refine it, check it with others, and really make sure that the questions you ask line up with the goals of the research.
  • If your team has remote workers, Miro is a great collaboration program for Affinity Diagrams, and several other methods.
Two men high-fiving in front of a computer.

More resources for Contextual Inquiry

Competitive AnalysisDiscovery Session