Contextual Inquiries: What, How, and Why

By admin | Dec 12, 2016

Conducting a contextual inquiry (CI) is one of the most powerful steps for studying a group’s UX and applying UCD. CI’s are just what you may think – it’s inquiring into the context of users’ everyday work and lives. It’s getting research out of the lab and into the field to discover what users do and how they do it. For teams aimed at redesigning enterprise software, contextual inquiries are a highly effective way to discover how work and activities can best be supported by novel technology. Doing so can have a dramatic impact on businesses. It is estimated that 25% of software development efforts fail outright and that 60% of delivered products are considered substandard. The primary cause for software being considered substandard is that it fails to support users in the context of their actual work. Contextual inquiries safeguard teams from delivering ineffective products because this method allows design and development teams to uncover system requirements directly from the nature of the work being supported. All too often teams design software based on their opinions of how the work is being performed without knowing for sure. These opinions are often wrong. Designing from fact, rather than opinion ensures the end product is effective. For teams serious about UX and UCD, contextual inquiries should be as commonplace as usability testing. Something of note: Contextual inquiries are not the panacea to ineffective, substandard products. They need to be used in conjunction with other methods such as interviews, surveys, and diary studies, but they can be the missing ingredient to success.

Contextual Inquiries: A Short How-To Guide

  1. Know the business objectives! Meet with all relevant stakeholders to agree on the business objectives and how the objectives will be tracked. Get a high level overview of the jobs and tasks being automated and the work roles involved.
  2. Collect a sample of individuals from key work roles. The sample needs to be as representative as possible based on constraints, timelines and budgets. This requires forethought and planning.
  3. Observe and take notes. Be sure to observe key work roles executing the primary use cases, tasks or activities relevant to the project. Be sensitive to devised workarounds and techniques used by the worker group and the language they use. Be alert to how one worker group collaborates with other groups to execute the work. Also take note of the environment.
  4. Ask questions. Inquire as to how and why the main artifacts are being used on the job. Artifacts can include systems, devices, notepads, forms and documents, containers, or anything else employees use regularly on the job. Get copies of these artifacts if possible. Always ask why. Asking why uncovers the root causes and motivations for doing things.
  5. Analyze the data. Analyze the data for common patterns and trends. Doing so will uncover the common workflows for executing specific work that can then be augmented with technology for better work performance.
  6. Inform the design. Identify the requirements to project success based on current workflows. What features are needed in the new technology that would make the work streamlined and easy? Use the environment, i.e. the lighting conditions, colors and the surroundings to inform the color palette in the UI. Replicate the group’s language in the interface and use their artifacts as iconography when appropriate. This will help maximize usability and minimize training time. 

Do I really need to do a Contextual Inquiry?

Even when solutions seem self-evident, contextual inquiries provide a huge benefit and can drive businesses forward. For example, Moen, a product line of faucets and fixtures, wanted to make shower heads that were considered innovative. Instead of taking an ego-centric design approach by basing design direction on their opinions, they conducted user interviews, did in-aisle research, consulted with hydrotherapists, and conducted contextual inquiries. Indeed, Moen found that the most interesting information came from contextual inquiries. This was done by placing tiny cameras in the shower heads of individuals willing to be observed. Of course, the topic of privacy came up with this research. The company made sure to emphasize that they were partnering with participants volunteering in the research. Researchers also made sure to treat participants with dignity and respect. From their findings, Moen discovered that the experience of showering was not just about getting clean. For many, different goals for showering include: getting motivated for the day, decompressing after a stressful day, and/or soothing emotional or physical aches and pains. Moen discovered existing showerheads interfered with actualizing these goals because the current design would make participants distort their body in awkward motions, and many did not provide the desired water-flow, pressure or coverage needed to easily provide the experience sought after by users. In addition, showers aren’t very well lit causing people to squint or close their eyes unnecessarily. This made it more difficult to turn knobs and adjust settings. All these factors impeded users from accomplishing their goals in the easiest way possible.

The company’s engineering department used this research to drive the design of a new shower head, which made it easier for users to actualize their goals and was designed to evoke a sense of well-being and relaxation. What was the result?

Moen received various design and product awards on their showerheads including the 2013 GOOD Design Award, Architectural Products Magazine Production Innovation Awards, and the 2013 Product of the Year award from Consulting-Specifying Engineer. In conclusion, teams really need to conduct contextual inquiries. They are a powerful means of making users the focal point of development efforts. Even when solutions appear self-evident, do not design based on opinion.