12 Things You Need to Know About Contextual Research

For my first research project at SEEK, I had the privilege of conducting contextual research with jobseekers. This research involved interviewing jobseekers about their experiences, and then observing them performing some common tasks on the website.

The participants I travelled to were situated in Melbourne (inner and outer suburban), and regional Victoria. All had been unemployed for 3–6 months, or were experiencing significant barriers to entry to the workforce (e.g. single parents returning to work).

Below are some pointers you might find useful when conducting your own contextual research.

  1. BYO Internet

It might sound obvious, but if you’re testing something webby (web-esque even), you will need a WiFi connection. A good one. Tethering to your mobile phone is all very well and good until you’re in a spot that your phone company doesn’t like — and, when you sheepishly ask you participant if they have WiFi, you find out that the NBN isn’t treating them too kindly. So what do you do?

2. Learn to improvise

No WiFi? No worries! While the session in question didn’t go exactly as I’d planned, I made do with asking the participant if they could show me how they did things on their phone (which, as it turned out, they used more frequently than a laptop anyway).

This gave us insight into the challenges associated with using SEEK on a mobile device (buttons that the participant expected to be there were missing). We had a little bit of time left over, so I was able to ask the participant further questions about what SEEK could do to better serve its users. Win.

3. Expect to hear some sad stuff…

People look for work for a variety of reasons — there is a story behind why someone is unemployed, or looking for work.

Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, is often exercised against people based on characteristics including parenthood, redundancy, education, location, mental illness, family illness or race. These biases can cause difficulties for people who are looking for work, who may not be given the same opportunities as everyone else.

Always acknowledge what your participant has gone through — but keep in mind you are there to listen and learn, not to counsel. In order to demonstrate that you are listening, you can say something like “That must be difficult for you”, or “Thank you for sharing that”.

This shows that you have heard the participant’s story and are grateful for their input, but does not open yourself up to trying to solve all of their problems, which you may not be qualified to do. Protect yourself as well as the participant.

4. …and expect it to stay with you for a bit

I got home after a particularly long day with some sad stories, and ended up flopping on the couch while my partner (bless) cooked. You will need time to absorb what you’ve heard and recharge.

You may end up getting teary over the latest season of Queer Eye while eating an ice cream. I mean, that totally wasn’t me…

Me with my ice cream. Hashtag sadface.

5. Don’t push the envelope too much

This is the eternal question of “how personal can you go?”

You’re going to feel kind of creepy anyway going into a virtual stranger’s home — and when a teenager tells you they do most of their job applying in their bedroom, are you going to request you go in there and observe them do it? Maybe, but your mileage may vary.

If they tell you they apply late at night in bed are you going to hop into bed with them? Definitely not.

Trust your instinct — if it feels too weird, don’t do it.

I feel uncomfortable just looking at this badly drawn cartoon

6. Expect that people may look at you weirdly if you’re in a public place. You may feel weird.

Sometimes participants will request to meet in a public place, like a library or a cafe. This is fine — you’re still capturing the participants on their “home turf”, and if that makes them comfortable enough to talk to you, that’s great.

However, get to the public place early and grab yourself a well-lit spot where you’ll be able to hear the participant clearly. The other patrons may cast a few strange looks toward you as you set up your equipment (are they filming for a TV segment? Is that person famous? Why are they talking so much?)

7. Look up parking. I beg of you.

Parking on the street usually does the job, but sometimes streets will have permit parking only, or parking for a very short amount of time. This brings about three possible results:

  • You have to cheekily park in your participant’s driveway and hope no one else in the household needs to use the garage and/or garden hose.
  • If it turns out someone does in fact need that garage, you have to awkwardly ask for a parking permit and hope that it’s not one they’re currently using.
  • If you’ve had to park far away, pray that your recent return to yoga has made you somewhat more fit and you are capable of carrying your equipment and piles of paper to the venue without looking super red in the face and puffed as you arrive.
Me after sprinting to St. Kilda Library from 3 blocks away

8. It may not be as contextual as you’d like

People, especially those with kids, will break up their tasks according to device, environment, and circumstance.

For example, a young person still living with their parents may do all their jobseeking tasks in their bedroom on a laptop. Parents might cram in job search tasks on their phone while waiting at the school pickup, or late at night once their kids are asleep. Job search and apply tasks are frequently broken up into chunks, with jobseekers saving jobs in one sitting, and then creating a mental space and physical place in which to prepare cover letters and CVs — anywhere from a day after to a week after they first save jobs.

The point is, unless you’re doing a diary study or following someone around for a few days, you’re going to get a rough picture but not the full picture.

You also need to think about whether you want the participants using their own device(s), or yours. Using their own devices means they do things exactly the way they would, but recording usage of personal devices is a grey area when it comes to ethics. (That’s another article for another day.)

For these sessions, I ended up asking participants to use my device to complete tasks — switching to their own devices when necessary to show me specific things. These parts were not video-recorded.

9. Expect your participants to apologise, constantly

We all like to pretend we’re “on top of things” and have our lives together. The reality is, most of us have piles of washing waiting to be put away, toys on the floor, pets running about and dusty bedside tables. (I’m sitting here writing this next to a full laundry basket.)

Upon me entering their home, participants always apologise for the way their house looks. (Particularly women — have a think about why this could be.) I reassured them that I too currently have washing drying in my living room and that I haven’t vacuumed for weeks.

Finding this common ground also helps to establish rapport and comfort — you’re both regular people! Who knew?

Don’t overstep it and jump in to agree with everything they say — but, sharing just a little bit is OK, particularly if your participant is appearing uncomfortable.

In some cases the participant may elect to be audio-recorded only, because they are embarrassed about how their house looks — and that’s OK. That’s why you bring something to audio-record with.

11. Establishing common ground is OK

As I touched on above, establishing some common ground, within reason, can help to build rapport and ease some of the tension.

Have you ever acted as a guinea pig for someone else’s interview guide? Being on the receiving end of an interview is odd. You feel under scrutiny and there’s a part of you that wants to make sure you’re doing it “right”, and appearing to be oh-so-interesting— no matter how many times you’ve been reassured that there’s no right or wrong answers!

Now imagine a complete stranger is asking you questions, all about you, in your home — and you’ve never quite done this before and oh whoops my dog just barked sorry and oh hey my sister just walked in do you want a Milo and oh Hi Mum yeah we won’t be too long and…


Through sheer accident, I found out one participant happened to also take part in an unusual hobby of mine. I mentioned I also did the thing.

Once we’d established this common ground, they relaxed significantly and the session went a lot more smoothly. Don’t be afraid to reveal little bits of information about yourself if you think it will help the session along.

In Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users (2013), Steve mentions he once shared with a participant that he too was Jewish. As he says, “a small revelation gave the interviewee permission to move forward with the interview”.

Allow for those small revelations, particularly if the participant is hesitant or nervous.

12. If it can go wrong, it will

Got recording software set up? Great. Now add on a portable video camera with a spare battery, chargers, a stand, and SD cards. Got that? Good. You better take your mobile phone just in case your recording software and camera stuff up. And your mobile phone charger.

I recorded a great interview and then the software promptly vamoosed my recording. Luckily I had the portable video camera!

Sometimes you won’t have an ideal spot to put the cameras — this will mean a good 10–15 minutes of MacGyvering until you’ve figured out how to perch the camera somewhere where you can capture the scene and screen, without it falling off or moving during the interview.

Lastly, in addition to your software chucking a hissy fit, you have to think about all of these things:

Printed interview guides? Consent forms? Spare ones? Got antihistamines? Checked the addresses? The participant’s name? Enough time to get from A to B? Got petrol? Prepped questions to validate what the participant said in the screener? Eaten today? Brought a water bottle? Know where to find a bathroom? Got a corded mouse? Got Google Maps and a GPS? Got a notetaker? Do they know where they’re going? Are you carpooling? PT-ing it? Have you briefed your notetaker? Are they scared of dogs? Are you scared of dogs?

Got the participant’s phone number in case their dog is staring you down from behind the fence and you don’t feel OK just walking on in there?

Make a list, check it twice! The below items are not exhaustive, but should start you off:

  • Your laptop and its charger/associated cords (beware— you might love Macs. Your participant may not)
  • Portable WiFi device
  • A mouse
  • Recording equipment — something to record the screen, and the participant
  • A mobile phone to audio record and take photos, and its charger
  • Printed interview guides (one for you, one for your notetaker) and spares (in case you drop one in a puddle)
  • Consent forms and spares (again, puddles and/or mistakes)
  • Addresses and contact details for your participants
  • Parking/meter money
  • Myki
  • Antihistamines, Panadol, Soothers (interviewing all day/week can result in a sore throat)
  • Water & snacks
  • A GPS/Google Maps/Melways/compass…
  • Paper and pens

Lastly, be prepared to wing it occasionally, and be curious!

(The dog turned out to be lovely.)

He really enjoyed putting his nose in the laptop camera

Related reading:

Portigal, S. (2013) Interviewing Users. Brooklyn, New York: Rosenfeld Media

Johnston, A. (2018, April 20). Ethical product design: should we make the unconscious conscious? Retrieved from https://medium.com/seek-blog/ethical-product-design-should-we-make-the-unconscious-conscious-40d46a29efb6

Rogers, C. (2016, February 15). User Researchers Stink. Retrieved from https://medium.com/seek-blog/user-researchers-stink-e02bbcf24acc