Contextual Analysis

Through observation and collaborative interpretation, contextual inquiry uncovers hidden insights about customer’s work that may not be available through other research methods.

Typically we conduct contextual inquiry during the early discovery stages for a new feature or product because this research data is so critical in shaping design choices such as requirements, personas, features, architecture, and content strategy.

The contextual-inquiry method was developed by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt as a way to resolve the drawbacks of other

methodologies such as
User Survey
User Interview

These methodologies rely on the users’ ability to recall and explain a process that they are removed from in that moment. People attempt to summarize their processes, but important details like reasoning, motivation, and underlying 

are left out of this summary, leaving researchers with only a superficial understanding of the users’ approach to the activity.

Contextual Inquiry — UX Knowledge Base Sketch #51
Contextual Inquiry — UX Knowledge Base Sketch #51

Contextual inquiry is a type of ethnographic field study that involves in-depth observation and interviews of a small sample of users to gain a robust understanding of work practices and behaviors. Its name describes exactly what makes it valuable — inquiry in context:

  • Context: The research takes place in the users’ natural environment as they conduct their activities the way they normally would. The context could be in their home, office, or somewhere else entirely.
  • Inquiry: The researcher watches the user as she performs her task and asks for information to understand how and why users do what they do.

Contextual inquiry is useful for many domains, but it is especially well-suited for understanding users’ interactions with complex systems and in-depth processes, as well as the point of view of expert users.

In a contextual inquiry, the UX researcher observes how participants perform certain tasks while having them describe what they are doing through their interaction with the product. Unlike a usability test, the user is interacting with the product in their natural habitat and context of use. This contextual environment yields richer insights and a deeper understanding behind the behavioral interaction between a user and the product.

The goal is to observe the actions the users perform and understand the goals behind those actions.

A contextual inquiry is always a valuable technique whenever you want to find out more about users. Most of the time, this is in the early stages of a project. Since UX is not linear, a contextual inquiry can also occur after a product release to help gauge the success and efficiency of your solution. For the most part, a contextual inquiry occurs at the beginning of a project when you are evaluating whether or not users would even have a need for your product. A contextual inquiry is a great way to help you validate an idea.

Another valuable reason for a contextual inquiry is that it captures how users currently solve the problem that you are aiming to fix. This will help shed light on the current pain points to help guide your design decisions moving forward. Once you understand the user’s pain points (and the things that worked well), you can design a solution to help improve the existing user journey.

4 Grounding Principles

Contextual inquiry is based on 4 principles that help researchers adjust and apply the apprenticeship model to the context of their products and work.

  1. Context. The researcher should observe in the natural environment. Just as craftsmen do not prepare a summary of talking points to teach technique in a classroom, researchers should conduct the research where the user typically works, avoiding labs or conference-rooms settings.
  2. Partnership. The user and researcher are partners in the process of understanding the work. The researcher should not control the entire session and content of discussions. Both parties should be free to direct the conversation toward what needs to be considered.
  3. Interpretation. The researcher should develop a comprehensive and shared interpretation for all important aspects of the work, aided by feedback from the user.
  4. Focus. The researcher should understand the purpose of the research project and what information should be sought. This understanding guides the observation and the interviews during sessions.


After contextual-inquiry sessions have been completed, researchers and designers should come together to share findings and interpret the results of the interviews. Workshop exercises for finding themes in qualitative data, such as 

, help the team align on patterns and themes.

Contextual inquiry is often coupled with 

. In the end, teams should walk away with a shared understanding of users’ work processes, mental models, and common behaviors, so they are prepared to design solutions for their customers.