Contextual Analysis

Through observation and collaborative interpretation, contextual inquiry uncovers hidden insights about customers’ 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 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 to resolve the drawbacks of other Qualitative Research methodologies, such as User Surveys and User Interviews.

These methodologies rely on the users’ ability to recall and explain a process from which they are removed at that moment. People attempt to summarize their methods, but important details like reasoning, motivation, and underlying mental models are left out of this summary, leaving researchers with only a superficial understanding of the user’s approach to the activity.

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 normally. The context could be entirely in their home, office, or elsewhere.
  • 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 in a usability test, the user interacts with the product in their natural habitat and context of use. This contextual environment yields richer insights and a deeper understanding of the behavioral interaction between a user and the product.

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

A contextual inquiry is always valuable whenever you want to learn 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 evaluate whether users would even need 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 you aim to fix. This will help shed light on the pain points and guide your design decisions. Once you understand the user’s pain points (and the things that worked well), you can design a solution to improve the existing user journey.

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 the natural environment. Just as craftsmen do not prepare a summary of talking points to teach techniques in a classroom, researchers should conduct the research where the user typically works, avoiding labs or conference room settings.
  2. Partnership. The user and researcher are partners in understanding the work. The researcher should not control the entire session or the content of discussions. Both parties should be free to direct the conversation toward what must be considered.
  3. Interpretation. The researcher should develop a comprehensive and shared interpretation of all important aspects of the work, aided by feedback from the user.
  4. Focus. The researcher should understand the research project’s purpose 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 Affinity Mapping, help the team align on patterns and themes.

Contextual inquiry is often coupled with Task Analysis. Ultimately, teams should walk away with a shared understanding of users’ work processes, mental models, and common behaviors to prepare them to design solutions for their customers.