Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry is literally inquiry of context. It is a method where participants are observed while they perform tasks and simultaneously talk about what they are doing while they perform them. Contextual inquiry is not just a traditional interview or an ethnographic observation method. The key difference between contextual inquiry and other user research methods is that participants must take a more active role in leading their session in contextual inquiry.

Quick details: Contextual Inquiry

Structure: Semi-structured

Preparation: Topic, Participant recruitment, Research environment

Deliverables: Recordings, Notes, Documentation

More about Contextual inquiry

The dynamic of interviews and group discussion is more familiar to participants, who take a more passive role, sitting back and waiting to answer a researcher’s questions. In contrast, a contextual inquiry requires participants to take the position of a subject matter expert, leading the session by demonstrating and talking about their tasks. For those who are used to taking a more passive role during interviews, this turned table can be difficult. Without intending to, participants often slip back into the traditional role. 

Because contextual inquiry is so different, clients usually don’t understand it or the need for it. Even if the client or the one who has requested the research understands contextual inquiry, it is difficult for them to explain it to others connected to the research. This often leads to poor expectation setting and management. Again, if the design research company isn’t the one briefing the participants, the participants may not have a complete idea of what contextual inquiry involves and end up signing up for something that they are not comfortable with. This can be resolved if a write up explaining what exactly will happen during the contextual inquiry is provided to the client and further sent to the participants. Additionally, a description of what exactly is expected from the participants will also help the process.

Contextual inquiry is usually 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.


Advantages of Contextual inquiry

1. Detailed information gathering

Contextual inquiry produces highly detailed information as opposed to many other qualitative methods, which produce more high-level information.

2. User centered

As contextual inquiry is led by the participants, it takes whatever course the user wants to give it as well as flexible from their point of view.

3. Accuracy

As the participant is comfortable and authentic in their environment, the quality of information gathered is highly accurate.

4. Real Insights

Contextual inquiry is performed in the participant’s natural environment so the insights are closely connected to the participants and their tasks.


Disadvantages of Contextual inquiry

1. Time and resource consuming

As contextual inquiry is performed with one participant at a time, it is fairly time consuming. Again, the participants are more in control of the flow so they decide how long or short the session would be.

2. 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.

3. Client understanding

Being an unfamiliar method of research, clients need to be explained in detail what contextual inquiry is and how exactly will it help them learn whatever they are looking to learn from the exercise.

4. Expectation setting

Setting correct expectations with the customer and participants is the most important in contextual inquiries.

5. Unfamiliar research method

As most participants are not familiar with contextual inquiries, they may not be up for leading a session and taking on a more active role to aid in research.

Think Design's recommendation

Contextual inquiry is usually employed when we want to capture a process in its natural setting; and generally used in situations where you want to capture nuances of the process that the users otherwise may not be able to articulate in an interview. Let’s say, you want to understand how a fitness coach goes about his coaching in a way you want this to be developed into a software/ app. In this case, interviewing a coach may not be productive as the coach may not be able to retrospect and tell you all the nuances that are necessary. Further, interviewing the coach outside of fitness center setting may also not yield the right results.

Employing contextual inquiry helps the researcher observe and probe at the same time; and document the process capturing all the details in their original setting. Do not use contextual inquiry as a method when you are not looking at capturing a process or when a simple shadowing exercise can yield necessary results.

Services & Expertise

Sign Up for our Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated with the latest insights in UX, CX, Data and Research.


Get in Touch

Embed page