Concurrent Probing can be seen as a variation or more accurately an extension of contextual inquiry.
In contextual inquiry, the participants are asked to perform tasks, as they would normally do in their natural environment, at their natural pace and following the natural steps to complete the tasks. While doing so, they would talk out loud describing the process and play an active role in the session acting as subject matter experts for the task at hand. When working on the tasks, if the participant says something interesting, the researcher asks follow-up questions. Therefore, here the researcher, as well as the participant, takes an active role in executing the exercise.
Concurrent Probing is more useful in situations where probing doesn’t disrupt the natural flow of the participant as this could alter the subsequent steps a participant would have otherwise taken without interruptions.
Like Contextual inquiry, Concurrent Probing must be performed with one participant at a time and in an environment where the participant usually performs their tasks. Rather than recruiting one participant to perform all tasks, the tasks can also be split up among different participants to observe and understand all tasks in depth and not exhaust or tire down one participant. Additionally, careful measures should be taken to not disrupt the natural flow of working of the participants during the exercise as this would defeat the purpose of the session.
Advantages of Concurrent Probing
01 Detailed information gathering
Concurrent Probing produces highly detailed information as opposed to many other qualitative methods, which produce more high-level information.
02 User & Researcher active participants
This is one of the few techniques where both users, as well as the researcher, play an active role in the exercise.
As the participant is comfortable and authentic in their environment, the quality of information gathered is highly accurate.
04 Real Insights
Concurrent Probing is performed in the participant’s natural environment so the insights are closely connected to the participants and their tasks.
Disadvantages of Concurrent Probing
01 Time and resource consuming
As Concurrent Probing is performed with one participant at a time, it is fairly time-consuming. Again, with the participants talking aloud and the researcher probing, the exercise is not in control of just one facilitator to manage time.
02 Data interpretation
As is the case with any qualitative research, this method must be backed up with data gathered from other methods and then the data must be interpreted to get a more clear and accurate picture of the findings.
03 Client understanding
Being an unfamiliar method of research, clients need to be explained in detail what concurrent probing is and how exactly will it help them learn whatever they are looking to learn from the exercise.
04 Expectation setting
Setting correct expectations with the customer and participants is most important in Concurrent Probing.
05 Unfamiliar research method
As most participants are not familiar with Concurrent Probing, they may not be up for taking charge of the session.
06 Disruption of flow
As the researcher can interrupt the participant while performing a task to probe further, the normal flow of the participant may get disrupted and the participant may not perform the task as they usually do.
Think Design recommendation
Many a time, passive observation techniques lead us to want more from the research exercise; this is because we may want to know why a user did what s/he did or you just end up with many unanswered questions when you observe passively. The concurrent Probing technique allows the researcher to probe the user while a particular task is being performed and hence, allows insight into users’ thinking while doing. In general, current probing almost always involves user to perform a task and involves researcher probing the user while that task is being performed.
Use this method when you are required to know ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ at the same time, without needing researchers’ interpretation/ synthesis at a later time. Do not use Concurrent Probing in situations users cannot articulate their reasons or in contexts where researchers’ intervention can lead to distractions for the user.