Contextual Inquiry: a design process built around observation and discussion

Contextual inquiry

There are tools and systems for every task and project in UX research; today, we’re looking at contextual inquiry, what it brings to user research, and how to ensure you get the most out of its methodology.

What is contextual inquiry?

Contextual inquiry is an observational qualitative research method. It’s a collaboration between the user and researcher, creating a discussion around the essential topics.

However, unlike other qualitative research methods, it’s designed to uncover the user or subject’s behaviours, feelings, drivers, and reactions while performing a service, action, or activity in the environments where those activities normally happen.

Understanding the context in contextual inquiry

Context, in this instance, refers to the operators’ natural environment. Observing users in a lab setting can uncover many elements that interviews or questionnaires would fail to expose but they can’t show you how users react to interruptions, outside influences, or other location-specific pressures or activities that crop up during everyday life.

Contextual inquiry involves monitoring actions in a specific location, whether your study happens in the user’s office, their home, travelling to or from work, or within a unique environment specific to the app or service’s delivery.

Why do we need contextual inquiry?

Why can’t a questionnaire or traditional interview provide the same detail as the contextual enquiry research method? Our memories are selective, and our answers limit how much information we share.

When asked to recall a process, users summarise them into their most essential parts, whereas observing people in action uncovers every step of the journey. If those steps appear unclear, the researcher can immediately raise questions to clarify the user’s actions.

Isn’t remote contextual inquiry testing an oxymoron?

Monitoring subjects in their natural environment often means taking a trip to observe them in action. This kind of field study weighs heavily on financial and time resources. Using modern technology platforms, we have options for remote contextual inquiry studies using video chat and observation systems. However, for a successful study, utilising those options depends on the study’s goals, the topics and activities you need to cover, and how they may impact your results.

Thankfully, as discussed in this article by the Nielsen Norman Group, conducting contextual inquiry remotely can be carried out with great success.

What makes contextual inquiry different from other research methods?

Unlike simpler, more traditional methods (such as questionnaires and surveys), a contextual interview is based more on discussion than a conventional question-and-answer exchange. Contextual inquiries are more interactive than usability testing and more revealing than user interviews.

Without putting too much pressure on the user, the UX researcher observes them in action, interjecting when they need clarification or an explanation surrounding an activity or operation.

They might ask why the user is performing an operation in a particular way, what the benefit is, or why it’s necessary; they may ask the user to walk them through a process, describing their actions and why. Their questions are designed to open a discussion around the topic instead of the more rigid closed questions-and-answers a survey provides.

Why do we use the contextual inquiry method?

Contextual inquiry uncovers actions, extra steps, issues, and advantages that interviews, questionnaires, surveys, and other research methods overlook or fail to uncover.

To do this, we see the user as an expert in their field, and their role is to show us, the researcher playing the role of a novice in that area, what they do and why.

With that in mind, contextual inquiry is often used to detail and explore complex activities and better understand users’ behaviours.

Because of its deeper dive into the environmental operation by an expert user, it regularly lends itself to:

  • Software and product design
  • Service delivery
  • Exploring the discovery stages of new products or features and project development
  • Product or service testing
  • Building content strategies
  • Optimising features, applications, and workflows
  • Enhancing user interfaces
  • Improving the user or customer experience

Although contextual inquiry is designed to uncover each user’s feelings, motivations, and behaviours, it can also reveal unanticipated issues, unconventional alternative uses, pain points and problems, product flaws, and more.

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The four grounding principles of contextual inquiry

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, we should conduct contextual inquiry by applying these four principles.

1. Context

The essential context is the user’s natural environment. It might be a classroom, surgery, office, football pitch, or on the bus. Wherever the user’s work takes them and wherever they interact with their app, software, or service, that’s where the study needs to happen.

2. Partnership

Every partnership revolves around a shared understanding. With contextual inquiry, understanding the depth of the work tasks requires a partnership between the ‘expert’ and the researcher. While the researcher observes the expert, the discussion should be a joint effort controlled by both parties. If the researcher feels the user has resorted to a more conventional interview mode, it’s up to them to return the study to an open discussion-based format.

3. Interpretation: or, more accurately, mutual interpretation

The researcher must develop an accurate evaluation of the work practices. This means creating a shared interpretation of tasks and actions, delivered as the researcher watches the user and validated by the feedback openly volunteered or requested where necessary.

4. Focus

As with all user research, operating under specific goals or targets, the data gathered must have a clearly defined use. The research focus should guide observations and discussions throughout each contextual interview, with the appropriate qualitative data analysis methods revealing possible solutions and sensible next steps.

How to conduct a contextual inquiry

Again, the Nielsen Norman Group neatly structures the contextual inquiry method into four stages:

1. The primer stage

The primer stage helps to ease participants into the session. It should include a casual introduction of who you are, what you hope to achieve, how the process will work, and your expectations from each participant. The tone should be light, encouraging a comfortable and relaxed relationship to form.

This is also the time to discuss confidentiality and data collection and acquire the data protection approval required by the study organisers.

2. The transition stage

The transition covers factors between the introduction and the interview. You’ll explain that you’re about to start the contextual inquiry method and how it will run.

Let them know that you will observe them as they work, but they should expect you to interrupt whenever something of interest happens or needs clarification. If the timing of your questions is problematic, they should say so and stop to discuss the matter at a more suitable point.

3. The contextual interview

As outlined in the transition stage, the researcher will watch and learn, interjecting where necessary. The interview will form its own natural rhythm, but the researcher should be aware of external resources and additional steps, enquiring about uncommon variations and why they might happen.

This stage also provides an opportunity to ask about anything else you didn’t understand and to have your interpretations of the process and your user’s mental model validated or corrected.

4. The wrapup

The wrapup provides a final opportunity to clear up any undetermined points, summarise your notes and findings, and have your user clarify or correct them.

The advantages and disadvantages of contextual inquiry

As with all processes, the contextual inquiry method has pros and cons.

Advantages of contextual inquiry

  • Provides real-world observations
  • Accuracy of information gathered
  • Detailed and accurate insightful data
  • Uncovers behaviours invisible to interviews: for example, interruptions, hidden steps, superstitions, cultural reactions, and illogical reactions to logical situations

Disadvantages of contextual inquiry

  • Multiple site visits and deep-diving observations can become time-intensive.
  • Meeting users in their natural environments places a high demand on financial and time resources and tends to dictate a small sample group of users.
  • Unnecessary for simple operations that require straightforward solutions.
  • Sessions can easily evolve into a complaints debate: remember, contextual inquiry aims to determine how users feel and behave while operating a product or service in their natural environment. This includes both good and bad in equal measure.
  • Be aware of user and researcher conscious and subconscious biases: whether you or the user mean to or not, you’ll have pre-existing ideas about the study, the application, its faults, and a range of other factors. To achieve the results and accurate information that lead to genuinely user-centred design, try to be objective, leaving any biases you may have at the door. Also, on biases, be aware that users may try to give the answers they think you want to hear. Alternatively, in some instances, your questioning may also take a line that suggests an answer or solution that fits a pre-defined ideology.

Tips for performing a successful contextual inquiry

  • Record as much as possible, allowing you to share valuable information with stakeholders and the design team further down the line.
  • Take notes, make sketches, or take photos to outline valuable factors in your recordings and to refer to later, including any useful observations, comments, questions, and ideas.
  • Prepare a selection of questions ahead of time. They should cater to your research goals’ topics and help maintain consistency between interviewees.
  • Let your observations lead the discussion: use clarifying questions to confirm or validate what you learn, but also as an option to correct any points you may misinterpret.
  • Consider breaking contextual inquiries into two parts: the first, purely to observe, and then again, into specific tasks and stages where you can openly discuss what’s happening in each section.
  • Validate data insights with alternative studies or processes: to ensure your results are statistically significant—especially from smaller participant pools—you may need to validate your findings through more cost-effective questionnaires and surveys.


When managed correctly and efficiently, the contextual inquiry method delivers important insights and design solutions that lead to a well-documented user-centred design process. Other methods allow you to gather information and important aspects, but not many provide such essential information as carrying out such discussions while using a product in its natural context.

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