What is a contextual inquiry?

A user-centered product development requires understanding the user and being able to put yourself in her shoes. With a contextual inquiry, we observe users in their familiar environment when handling the product, ask them about their experience, and thus gain valuable insights for the remainder of the project.

When should I conduct a contextual inquiry?

A contextual inquiry serves as a platform to brainstorm on innovation projects or as part of the requirement analysis at the beginning of the development process. We need to understand and describe users’ behavior in order to establish a secure basis to develop or optimize user-friendly products and services. 

This in-depth understanding of user behavior is achieved through participant observation, which not only covers the aspects of use on which customers are happy to provide information but also all routine processes (e.g., maneuvering a car) and special features in the users’ surroundings (e.g., software available at the workplace or distractions from interaction partners) which respondents either are not aware of or do not believe are worth mentioning.

How does a contextual inquiry work?

A contextual inquiry consists of four phases, which are designed in collaboration with you for each project and each question:

  • Define the focus
    We work with you to formulate learning objectives and define the focus of the interviews using lead questions.
  • Select interview partners
    We select typical representatives of the defined target group who can offer informative insights into the relevant activities and processes during the interview. The selection of suitable interview partners is crucial for the quality of the findings and therefore requires special attention.
  • Conduct on-site interviews  
    We conduct interviews based on the “master-student model”, in which the interviewee “teaches” us about her actions and workflows. This allows us to avoid the situation of giving a test and reduce any undesirable influence on the processes we want to observe.
    The interviews are conducted by our experienced researchers or in collaboration with your project team members. This enables us to take an even more intense look at the usability context and increases the level of empathy in your project team.
  • Document findings
    The interviews are documented in protocols that are converted into audio recordings and extensive photo and video collages depending on the interviewees and interview situation.

What kind of results can be expected?

You will receive a comprehensive description of the usability context, which provides pertinent information on the observed actions and behaviors, encountered problems, special features of the physical and social environment as well as the lessons learned. This collection of empirical information builds a substantial basis for the creative and conceptual development work by your project team.

However, the most important result will be to ensure that you understand your customers.