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Contextual Inquiry (CI)

a method for gathering and representing data about the user and his/her work

“Contextual Design makes data gathering from the customer the base criterion for deciding what the system should do...”

“The core premise of Contextual Inquiry is very simple: go where the customer works, observe the customer as he or she works, and talk to the customer about the work. Do that, and you can’t help but gain a better understanding of your customer.”


The User is Not Like Me

Why not? Based on Norman:

Designers are much more familiar with the interface and with the problems being solved than users.

Designers are confident.

Users are often fearful.

Designers work in settings that are different than the context in which the product may be used.

Designers may have different skills than users (e.g., perceptual, cognitive, or domain skills).


CI: A hybrid process of discovery

Participatory design tradition from Europe

Interviews from social science

Think-aloud from cognitive psychology

Ethnography from anthropology

Brainstorming, stakeholders from business & design


Purposes of CI

1. To obtain data from users in their context

2. To help define requirements, plans and designs & prioritize


Obtaining data from users in their context

1. Insights about the users’ environment

2. Insights about their many tasks

3. Insights about the people they work with

4. Insights about cultural influences on work (expectations, desires, policies, values, etc.)

5. Understanding of breakdowns in current processes


The CI Approach

1. Actions speak louder than words

2. Have conversations with users in the context of their work


Actions speak louder than words

People usually cannot say what innovations they would like and, even when they can, are sometimes wrong about what would be helpful (X-ray example, Beyer & Holtzblatt, 1996).

“Users of an X-ray machine kept asking for more and more exact speed controls on their X-ray machines, trying to run the image at exactly 1/4 second per frame. It was not until someone studied the work they were doing that they realized the users just needed a timer—they were trying to run the tape at an exact speed so they could measure elapsed time. The customers requested a technical fix to the existing system, but the real issue was in the structure of the work they were doing.”


Have conversations with users in the context of their work

“Direct observation” when possible

When not possible
1. Cued recall of past experience
2. Re-creation of related experience (e.g., think-aloud)


Principles of CI

1. Context

2. Partnership

3. Interpretation

4. Focus



Must be done in the setting of the participant.



Master/apprentice model; investigator is humble.



Observed facts must be regarded for their design implications. Raw facts without interpretation aren’t very useful.



Themes that emerge during the inquiry. You can’t pay attention to all facets of someone’s work at all times!


Master/Apprentice Model: Avoid these relationships...

1. Interviewer / Interviewee

2. Expert / Novice

3. Guest / Host


Why avoid the Interviewer/Interviewee relationship in master/apprentice model?

Not based on context or ongoing activities


Why avoid the Expert/Novice relationship in master/apprentice model?

You are not the expert in the user’s work, they are!


Why avoid the Guest/Host relationship in master/apprentice model?

You shouldn’t be too afraid of asking the wrong question


Interview Data

1. Go for concrete details obtained in-context, not abstract generalities

2. Have them “think aloud” as they work through their tasks.

3. Pepper them with short, easy-to-answer questions


Go for concrete details obtained in-context, not abstract generalities

Don’t ask participants to summarize their work. Ask them specific details about real, concrete, observable things


Pepper them with short, easy-to-answer questions

Avoid high-level philosophical questions that will just cause them to “talk” instead of “do”


Withdraw & Return

1. The researcher observes something that he/she would like to dig deeper about (e.g. “Is there a reason you paused there?”)

2. The researcher asks about this and the pair WITHDRAW momentarily from the task at hand

3. The pair discuss the researcher’s question

4. After, participant RETURNS to the task at hand


What To Look For

1. Workarounds

2. Mismatch between what people say and do

3. Offhand, under the breath comments

4. Sighs

5. Rolling of eyes

6. Confessions


Interpretation Checking

1. It is good to regularly check your interpretations

2. As long as you check your interpretations in-context, participants will respond accurately


It is good to regularly check your interpretations

“I saw you just do X. Is that because of Y?”

“I believe X. Is that correct?”

“If you had a technology that did X, would that solve this problem?”


As long as you check your interpretations in-context, participants will respond accurately

Outside of context, they may be more inclined to agree or answer in generalities rather than specifics


Vet Your Design Ideas

1. CI is also a fine time to get initial feedback on design ideas

2. Designers will want to do this anyway, so might as well support it

3. Users will quickly understand the intent of your suggestion, and will be able to provide direct feedback

4. This will also demonstrate your understanding of the problem, providing opportunity for brainstorming and/or clarification


Stages of a CI

1. Interview/Warm Up

2. Transition

3. Observe Behavior

4. Share Interpretation

5. Refine Interpretation

6. Wrap-up


What NOT to do in CI

1. Not being inquisitive/nosy enough

2. Overly disrupting the task

3. Turning it into a regular interview

4. Failing to be discrete

5. Failing to respect your participants

6. Failing to observe closely and take good notes

7. Over-focusing on the wrong details

8. Slipping into abstraction


Not being inquisitive/nosy enough

If you have the impulse to ask, do it right away!


Overly disrupting the task

Questions are great, but don’t ask so many so fast that the participant stops doing their tasks.


Turning it into a regular interview

If you could have done it in a coffee shop, you didn’t do a contextual inquiry.


Failing to be discrete

Participants must feel safe, free, and anonymous.


Slipping into abstraction

Keep it concrete, in the work, in the details.


Group Interpretation

A maximum of 48 hours after the interview, group interpretation is conducted

Focusing on one interview at a time, each design team member is allowed to ask questions of the interviewer


Outputs of GI meeting

1. A sequence of notes, including observations, questions, design ideas and breakdowns, indexed by user number (important to keep anonymous)

2. A set of work models (coming up)


GI Session Roles

1. Interviewer

2. Work Modelers

3. Recorder

4. Moderator

5. Participants

6. Rat-hole Watcher



conducted the interview


Work Modelers

generate work models



take notes



run the session



ask questions, make observations


Rat-hole Watcher

avoids breaking protocol or wasting time


Work Models

Data from a CI is used to make models

1. Helps us understand the workflow

2. Highlights gaps in our understanding

3. Allows us to note breakdowns and workarounds (These are often opportunities for design)


Flow Model

Focuses on the roles of different users and how they COMMUNICATE and COORDINATE to get work done

Each flow model is generated from a specific individual perspective

Includes the PLACES where communication happens, the ARTIFACTS used for communication, and BREAKDOWNS in communication that negatively impact work


Cultural Model

External influences

“Work takes place in a culture, which defines expectations, desires, policies, values, and the whole approach people take to work”

Revealed in the language used to describe work, the tone of the place, the policies, and the influence of the overall organization

Influencers are the individuals, formal groups or abstract principles that influence the work of specific people


Physical Model

Layout of the work environment

Includes the ORGANIZATION of space, the GROUPING of people, and their MOVEMENT in the space

Focuses on aspects of relevant to the work/focus and not on complete fidelity


Sequence Model

1. Intents & sub-intents

2. Triggers & Steps

3. Breakdowns


Artifact Model


1. Parts

2. Presentation

3. Breakdowns


Opportunities for Design

1. Breakdowns

2. Workarounds

3. Mismatches between what people ‘say’ and what people ‘do’

4. Offhand comments

5. Sighs

6. Rolling of the eyes

7. Confessions