UX Research: 5 tips for a good contextual inquiry

Why use contextual inquiry?

Contextual inquiry is a qualitative research technique that lets researchers see and inquire what users do in their natural environment (like in their homes or work places).

What users do and what they say they do can be completely different! So this is a very insightful method to immerse yourself in your user’s environment.

Observing shopping behaviours

Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way:

1. Be a good guest and build rapport with your participants

You’ll be at your participant’s place of comfort, for example at their home or at their office, and they are opening up their place to you. If they aren’t at ease with you, it will make them think hard about their actions and this will have an impact on the insights you will get.

So, be respectful and be natural. Let the participant show you their environment, how they behave, and do the tasks they do frequently.

Here are few things to I do to build rapport:

  • Ask for a tour of the place- this is a good way to start your conversation and a chance to see the space they live or work
  • Spend some time explaining the structure of the day and what you hope to get out of it
  • Let the participant asks any initial questions about the research

2. Prepare a photo list

I like to take photos so I can bring the participant’s context and story to life. So I find it really useful to have a photo list with me. I check the list with the participant early on to get their OK to take photos throughout the research.

If the participant isn’t comfortable with me taking photos or for confidentiality reasons, then I get them to cross out the photos they don’t want on the list. I try to do it at the beginning of the observation, then we can relax after that. Plus, it means I don’t have to stop every time to ask for a photo!

My photo list:

  • The participant
  • The desk/ space they work
  • Computer screens/ devices
  • Technology they use
  • Papers they use
  • Wider environment e.g. office, building, team environment

3. Prepare a task list

What are your research questions? What have you hoped to achieve by doing contextual inquiry?

I always find it easier to start your planning with why you’re doing this and what you aim to find out from your participants. Then you can plan your task list around it easily. The task list should be brief so it allows you to observe and learn.

Example tasks:

  • Show me how you do your online shopping. (Observe: how participants decide their products. Ask why)
  • Show me how you look for work. (Observe: how participants approach a job search. What do they use? Do they use a newspaper? Do they look online? How do they keep track of the jobs they liked?)
  • Show me how you look up a customer’s details. (Observe: how participants approach the task and if they have any work arounds. Ask why.)

4. Be semi structured and let the session flow naturally

Research is the time to find out what you don’t know and learn from it— so whilst you might have a task list you’d like to observe and learn, you might see something different or new along the way. So be flexible and learn from those too!

For example, when asking the participant to look up a customer’s details you might see that they use work arounds. It would be good to pause and ask them why they have those work arounds and what problems they encountered before they came up with them. This allows you to get to the core problems they face and the pain points the participants are experiencing.

5. Learn like an apprentice

Your participant is the master in what they do, so learn from them like you’re an apprentice learning to do their job.

Start off with telling the participants that you want to learn by watching and asking questions, as if you were learning to do their job. It is likely that the participant has experienced ‘teaching’ somebody something — so it allows them switch to the ‘master’ mode and gives you the chance to ask questions to check your understanding of what you’re seeing (being the ‘apprentice’).

You will be surprised with what you find!

I’d like to hear how you get on. Good luck!


I founded Melon Experience Design to help clients gain better research insights from their users and make a social impact, get in touch if you would like to work with us