Contextual Inquiry


Useful Usability article on Contextual InquirySo what the heck is Contextual Inquiry and why should I care?

Dan Russel, Uber Tech Lead at Google Search Quality (and what a cool title that is!) recently published a post providing a rare glimpse into how Google captures and uses behavioral research to gather usability insights. According to Dan, two important areas of user behavior research are field research (aka contextual inquiry) and eye tracking studies. Here’s Dan’s take on contextual inquiry:

“To understand the full richness and variety of what people do when they are using Google, we spend many hours in the field, watching people search and listening to what they say as they do this. We hear it when they’re happy, and when they’re terribly frustrated. And perhaps most importantly, we also pay attention to the things they don’t say — the inexpressible “gotchas” that slow users down or get in the way of their search.”

So that got me thinking about contextual inquiry. And so I decided to look up contextual inquiry on Wikipedia. According to WikiPedia, the definition of contextual inquiry is:

“Contextual inquiry involves collecting detailed information about customer work practice by observing and interviewing the user while they actually work. The researcher should stay in the background and let the user lead the situation as much as possible. This means that researcher tries to form a partnership with customer, i.e., learning (but not doing) as an apprentice while the customer is the master of the work. This helps the researcher understand the customer’s work. The goal is to understand how and why something is done or why something is not done.”

Eh. I’m not feeling completely warm and fuzzy with Wikipedia’s description of contextual inquiry, as in my opinion it focuses more on the learning of tasks and well, darn it, just seems a tad bit wordy, vs the type of description that enters my imagination after reading Dan Russell’s working description of how Google uses contextual inquiry.

I’m thinking a more useful definition might be:

Craig’s useful usability definition of contextual inquiry (drum roll)…

“Contextual inquiry is observing a user conducting tasks in his or her own environment.”

I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to improve on, or completely throw-out, my description.

As to the logistics of actually using contextual inquiry, there are pros and cons to consider:

Contextual Inquiry Pros:
  • A chance to see what really happens in context
  • Provides data about environmental factors
  • Critical source of information for Persona and scenario development
Contextual Inquiry Cons:
  • Analysis relies on the capabilities of the observer
  • Possibility of no follow-up or probing means it’s possible to make wrong inferences
  • Only provides data on the observed work tasks and environment
  • The biggie: you’re there! (thus you’ve changed their environment)

More than any other research method, contextual inquiry lives (or dies) based on the capabilities of the observer. That’s because the problem is there’s usually only 1 observer per user. There’s no script, and there’s usually little or no ability to repeat tasks to make sure they were documented properly. With a single observer, it’s sometimes easy to miss something critical, for example if the observer is taking notes and looking down while the user continues with his or her task.

A good observer in a contextual inquiry situation will conduct “active listening,” meaning feeding back and clarifying what the user is showing or telling him or her, to make sure the observer got it right. With many video cameras being quite small, it’s not such a big deal to tape a session, unless of course the user is not comfortable with being videotaped, or the user is in a mobile setting where using a camera is impractical.

Now that’s not to say you couldn’t have more than one observer conducting a single contextual inquiry to help make sure nothing is lost. But let’s face it, a room full of 2 or more strangers keenly observing and documenting your every move can be rather difficult to ignore, and might put the most die-hard user off a bit!

Contextual Inquiry is Not 100% Reality

By the way, don’t fool yourself into believing that contextual inquiry is providing you with a 100% realistic view of what the user does all the time, and completely reflects the user’s reality. Why? Because YOU’RE THERE, and your user knows it! There’s always the possibility that your presence might impact the events you are observing.

Having someone staring over your shoulder as you try to conduct tasks could put anyone off, and will most definitely be an influencer in the user’s environment that they usually don’t have.

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As long as you understand this, and can follow-up your observations and conclusions carefully and with additional behavioral research then that’s fine. Just remember that contextual observation is not a controlled one-on-one performance test and what you observe may, or may not, reflect the user’s absolute reality. Remember, what you see ain’t always what they get.

All that said, contextual inquiry is the cornerstone of Persona development and behavioral research. Contextual inquiry can and should be used to understand how the user goes about accomplishing their tasks in their environment, and how their environment impacts their ability to conduct those tasks.

It’s the wise usability practitioner who conducts contextual inquiry, and then follows-up with additional observation and usability testing to further explore contextual inquiry data. What you observe in the field is a key piece of behavioral research and although not always easy to do, is well worth the time and energy put into it.


  1. Hi,

    I just arrived to your blog, and notice you organise your posts by week, but most of the weeks have only one post, so you’re creating a big menu of items that have t be open to reveal only one sub-item.

    In my own opinion, and remembering Raskin, isn’t it a waste of time to have to open a one-item drop-down menu?

    I would suggest you to organise posts by month, which is also more clear, and use the month’s name, which is also easier to read than the month’s number.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Victor, and you’re absolutely right!

    Being somewhat new to Blogger’s tools I’m going to experiment with ways to display the Archive in a hopefully more user-friendly manner!

    Good catch!

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