Putting UX in Context with Contextual Inquiries

Justin Morales
Oct 6, 2020 · 7 min read

User research is one of the most important elements of user-centered design. With various methodologies to choose from, it’s important to understand the functions of each, and knowing how and when to use them. Contextual inquiries are considered one of the richer types of user research methods, and can be a powerful tool for creating effective designs. A step further than a user interview, a contextual inquiry involves observing people in their natural context and habitat while asking them questions to fill in the gaps of your observation.

Illustration by Beth Anne Kinnaird.

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.

When to conduct contextual inquiries

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.

Two two main models of contextual inquiries

A contextual inquiry is based on the interaction between the UX researcher and the participant. When taking this collaboration into consideration, there are two main modes of interaction to consider.

  1. Active inquiry — This model occurs when the user and researcher talk through all of the tasks being performed by the participant. This provides an additional layer of information about their process. This model allows the researcher to interrupt the participant throughout the journey to ask any clarification questions they may need.
  2. Passive inquiry — This model involves the participant performing their tasks without engagement from the researcher. The participant completes their task as if nobody is watching and the research silently observes their behavior. In this model, all questions regarding the participant’s interactions are asked at the end after the task is complete.

The four guiding principles of contextual inquiries

There are four principles that guide an efficient contextual inquiry. These principles help keep the research focused, leading to rich, empowering data.

  1. Context — The most unique aspect to contextual inquiries is that they take place in the context of use. The researcher is able to observe in their natural habitat and ask follow up questions either during or after the observation. Being in context also helps jog people’s memories of past experiences that add additional value to this type of user research method.
  1. Partnership — There is a collaborative partnership that exists between the UX researcher and the participant in order to understand the user’s journey. The researcher is able to work together with the participant, discussing the reasoning behind the user’s behavior either during or after the observation. As mentioned, this partnership can either be in an active or passive setting.
  1. Interpretation — The researcher will review their interpretations of the participant’s actions at the end of a session. This empowers the researcher to validate or clarify their interpretations with the participant before they depart. Having a correct interpretation of the event is essential to ensure you are designing for the right reason.
  1. Focus — An efficient user researcher will steer the interaction towards topics that are relevant to the scope of the project. The focus describes the area you want to further understand and what types of actions you need to observe to get you there. This focus can help you keep the interview centered around relevant topics without too much divergence.

The three steps to conducting a contextual inquiry

The structure of a contextual inquiry is pretty straight forward, and should be done in three parts.

  1. Introduction — This is the stage where the researcher and the participant establish trust and communication, forming the partnership mentioned above. The researcher will introduce themselves and let the participant know the reason behind their inquiry. The researcher will typically ask permission to record the whole experience, letting them know when the recording has started and stopped. The researcher will typically explain that there are no wrong answers, aiming to make the participant comfortable before moving onwards. This is also the stage where you mention the confidentiality agreement.
  1. The process — This is the section where the participant actually interacts with the product. Here, the researcher observes the interaction making notes of pain points as well as things that went smoothly. All of these pros and cons will aid in the direction of the design at hand. In an active Inquiry model, the researcher will ask questions as the participant interacts with the product to help gain additional insight. In a passive Inquiry model, the questions take place in the wrap up.
  1. Wrap up — This is the final stage of a contextual inquiry, when the researcher summarizes the results of the session to the participant. Presenting these conclusions, gives the participant the opportunity to verify certain behaviors or clear up any areas of ambiguity. This empowers the participant to correct the researcher and gives them the opportunity to provide additional points that they think are important. As mentioned, in a passive inquiry, the researcher waits until the end of the interaction until they ask questions.

The benefits and limitations of a contextual inquiry

The benefits of doing a contextual inquiry are considerable, despite its limitations. Like everything, it’s important to weigh your options. Keep the following in mind when deciding whether you will do a contextual inquiry.

Benefits:

  • Behavior is more accurate when observed in context.
  • Ability to observe nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions.
  • Helps refine persona and scenario development prior to jumping in to the design.
  • Reveals information and behaviors the participants may not be aware of.

Limitations:

  • Analysis depends on the capability of the observer.
  • Your mere presence influences their activity and is not 100% natural.
  • Intensive use of time; Can be costly when compared to other research methods.
  • Approaching participants takes a certain type of personality to do so effectively.

Six best practices to keep in mind during a contextual inquiry

Now that we are almost experts in contextual inquiries, I want to leave you with six key considerations to keep in mind in order to maximize the success of your next contextual inquiry:

  1. Record when possible.
  2. Speak with one participant at a time.
  3. Encourage participants to think out loud.
  4. Notate body language and non-verbal signals.
  5. Do not put participants under pressure.
  6. Plan time for analyzing results.

Contextual inquiries are one of the richer forms of user research. They are a great way to validate the need for your product while gaining insight on how users currently solve the problem you are trying to fix. When used correctly, they empower the designer to make research-backed design decisions, leading to the creation of effective products that solve important pain points. Now that you understand in depth this methodology, go out and apply it during your next UX project!

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