What Is a Contextual Inquiry?
The Usability Professionals’ Association’s Usability Body of Knowledge,  defines a contextual inquiry as follows: “A semi-structured interview method to obtain information about the context of use, where users are first asked a set of standard questions and then observed and questioned while they work in their own environments.”
The key differentiator between contextual inquiry and other user research methods is that contextual inquiry occurs in context. It’s not simply an interview, and it’s not simply an observation. It involves observing people performing their tasks and having them talk about what they are doing while they are doing it.
Why Are Contextual Inquiries More Difficult?
Another key difference between contextual inquiry and other user research methods is that participants must take a more active role in leading their session. This is unfamiliar territory, and it can be uncomfortable for some people. The dynamic of interviews and focus groups is more familiar to participants, who take a more passive role, sitting back and waiting to answer a facilitator’s questions. In contrast, a contextual inquiry requires participants to take the role of an expert, leading the session by demonstrating and talking about their tasks. For those who are used to taking a more traditional, passive role during interviews, this role-reversal can be a difficult adjustment. Without intending to, participants often slip back into a passive, interviewee role.
Even less familiar user research techniques such as usability testing and ethnography are easier for participants to relate to, because they can take their cues from the researcher—answering questions or performing tasks as requested. The facilitator leads the session, and the participant’s role is fairly clear. In an ethnographic study, being observed can feel awkward at first, but it doesn’t require participants to do anything other than to perform their usual tasks and try to forget about the fact that they are being watched. Unlike a contextual inquiry, they don’t have to explain what they are doing or answer any questions, so it’s impossible for the session to lapse into a traditional interview.
Problems Researchers Encounter in Contextual Inquiries
Because contextual inquiries are so different from other user research techniques, they have their own set of challenges. In this section, I’ll discuss the most common problems and provide solutions for overcoming them.
Clients Don’t Understand What Contextual Inquiry Means
Most people have never heard the term contextual inquiry—and let’s face it, it’s an odd term. In one sense, that’s a good thing. Clients realize they don’t know what it means, so they ask you to define it rather than making incorrect assumptions. But even if you can get your clients to understand contextual inquiry, it’s difficult for them to explain it to others, so they may describe it to participants as an interview or meeting, setting incorrect expectations.
- Clearly explain to your clients what a contextual inquiry is and how it differs from an interview.
- To avoid confusion, you may want to use the term contextual interview or user research session.
- Provide your client with text to use in an email message when recruiting or introducing the concept to participants.
- Once your client has recruited the participants, send another email message directly to participants, introducing yourself and again explaining what will happen during the session.
- Emphasize that the sessions should be with one participant at a time, that it’s important to observe participants performing tasks, and that the sessions should occur in the environment in which participants normally perform those tasks.
Clients Don’t Understand That Contextual Inquiries Are Flexible Sessions
Clients often don’t realize that contextual inquiries are very flexible, unpredictable sessions that need to flow naturally in whatever direction participants take them. Since they think that it’s an interview, clients often get too caught up in providing specific questions that they expect you to ask participants.
- Ask your clients to define what they want to learn from the research in general, instead of focusing on specific questions to ask.
- Clarify that a contextual inquiry is flexible and does not follow a specific set of questions or tasks.
- Instead of showing your clients a discussion guide with specific questions that you’ll ask, show them an agenda of topics that you may discuss with participants and tasks that you may observe.
People Want to Do Sessions in a Conference Room
Sometimes clients or participants don’t understand the importance of observing task performance in context. Clients may schedule sessions in a conference room, thinking that’s more convenient and rationalizing that participants can either use a Web or intranet application from anywhere or connect remotely to their desktop computer. Sometimes participants think that there’s not enough room in their cubicle, or they don’t want to disturb their coworkers, so they decide to move the session to a conference room.
- Explain clearly from the beginning of a project that contextual inquiries must take place where participants normally perform their tasks.
- If participants won’t do a session in their usual context, politely cancel their session. This sends a clear message that you cannot do a session unless you can observe participants in their natural environment.
- If your client still insists on doing sessions in a conference room, change the name of your research activity to user interviews and explain the consequences of not seeing the context of the tasks.
People Try to Do Group Sessions
Sometimes clients or participants try to turn a contextual inquiry into a group session. Clients may want to include extra people, thinking they’ll get more feedback. Sometimes you’ll arrive to find a participant has invited another person such as a coworker into their session. From previous experience with business analysts, they may assume that it’s a group requirements gathering session. They may think, “We all use the system. So we should all be there to provide our feedback.”
However, there are times when it does make sense to have more than one person in a session. If two people perform a task together or their tasks closely interact with each other, it might make sense to involve both of them, so you can see exactly how their activities are interdependent.
- Clarify with your client at the beginning of the project—and with participants once your client has recruited them—that contextual inquiries are individual sessions, and you will not be conducting group sessions.
- If you suddenly find yourself faced with an impromptu group session, politely ask the other people to leave. If appropriate, offer to schedule them for additional sessions with you on their own. If they won’t leave, cancel the session. This sends a clear signal that group sessions are not acceptable when following this method.
- Be flexible and adapt to situations where it might make sense to have a second participant, especially if the two participants perform interrelated tasks.
Sessions Are Not Long Enough
Sometimes it’s difficult to fit in all of the tasks that you need to see during a single two-hour session—and two hours is usually the limit on the time you can expect participants to spend in one session. When you begin to run out of time, participants may rush through or skip certain parts of the process, trying to fit everything in.
- Carefully plan the tasks that you want to observe. Ask your clients how long those tasks usually take, and add extra time for discussion.
- If you need more than two hours with a participant, schedule extra sessions to avoid fatiguing the participant and to observe tasks when they normally occur.
- Divide the tasks you need to observe between participants. It’s better to see one or two tasks in depth during each session than to try to get an overview of many tasks with each participant—and not seeing any tasks in depth.