Everything You Need to Know About Contextual Inquiries in UX Research

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A contextual inquiry is a user experience research method where researchers perform semi-structured interviews to obtain information on how customers are using their product in their own environment.
To conduct a contextual interview, it should take place in the environment where customers typically use the product. The location is often either their place of work or their home. As the researcher, your goal is to immerse yourself in the participant’s world. This qualitative user research method allows you to gather rich information about your customer’s practices, routines, environment. It also sheds light into what tools they use and how they use them.
As with most qualitative research, contextual inquiries allows product teams to better understand what the problem is and uncover the “why”.

Preparing for your Session

First you should determine the scope of the research. Understand what tasks you want to observe your customer performing. Make sure to leave adequate time for discussion following those tasks.
Prior to the session, set expectations with your participants. It can be helpful to send them an email letting them know that you are going to be observing them perform a certain task and that they should try to act as they normally would during the session.
Any more than 2 hours for a single session is too long and is better off being conducted in multiple sessions, since it will lead to participant fatigue.

An Example of Contextual Inquiries

Let’s say your company sells household cleaners such as Windex. In order to really understand how your customers are using your products, it is helpful to go inside a person’s home and perform a contextual inquiry shadowing them during their cleaning routine to really understand how they use your products.
For the Windex example, you notice that when the customer is opening the Windex bottle, they turn the nozzle 4 times before they are able to find the setting they are looking for. It’s something they do without realizing and aren’t conscious of the habit, so they aren’t frustrated by it. However, as an expert researcher, you take notice and want to improve the design.

Master / Apprentice Model

During the session, you can use the Master/Apprentice Model which is a popular method in conducting contextual inquiries. This model instructs you think of the customer as the Master and yourself as the Apprentice. Your job during the interview is to learn about their craft by asking intermittent questions so you can understand your users behaviors and rationale.

During the Session

Begin your sentences with “show me…” or “tell me about…” Remember, you want the customer to be the Master and you the Apprentice so they should be taking the lead during the session.
As the researcher, you want to spend most of your time watching the customer complete tasks and listening to their rationale. Take notes on your user’s surroundings and everything you see in their environment. Your goal is to better understand their full experience with your product and how everything interacts. It helps to record the session and watch it back later so you can pick up on the details you may have missed during the session.
If you can, bring back artifacts from your session. These artifacts can be things like scraps of paper, photos, audio notes or video recordings.

Following your Contextual Inquiry

After your session, you will review your notes and observations. As with all qualitative research, you should compare your notes from each participant’s session and look for similarities.

Advantages of Contextual Inquiries

While conducting contextual inquiries, your team will be aware of additional information and have a greater understanding of your users since you’re observing them in their natural environment.
Contextual inquiries are a great addition to other forms of research. You can gather highly detailed information to supplement the high level information from other types of research.

Limitations of Contextual Inquiries

Contextual inquiries are time and resource intensive. By visiting a user in their home or place of work, you’ll expend more effort, time and money than other types of research.
Also, it’s harder to find participants who are willing to let you into their home or workplace since it’s more personal. Therefore, it will be more difficult to recruit participants. If you need recruiting, you can check out our blog on finding the right participants here.
Lastly, the observer effect can play a big part in this type of research. The observer effect states that people tend to act differently when they know they are being watched.
In our Windex example, the participants may want to appear as if they clean their homes more frequently than they actually do. Alternatively, they may fail to mention embarrassing tidbits of information, such as not cleaning out the kitty litter box as often as they should, and instead using Windex to mask the smell.


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