Contextual Inquiry (Hidden dimension of user research)

What is Contextual inquiry?

Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured interview method to obtain information about the context of use, involves observing people in their natural context and asking them questions to fill in the gaps of your observation.

The context of your inquiry depends on what and who you are trying to study. The key distinction is right in the name your inquiry must be on context and it as a combination of light ethnographic work and user interviews.

As users are interviewed in their own environments, the analysis data is more realistic than laboratory data. This is generally used at the beginning of the design process and is good for getting rich information about work practices, the social, technical, and physical environments, and user tools.

Two main models of contextual inquiries

Active inquiry

The user and researcher talk through all of the tasks being performed by the participant. This provides an additional layer of information about their process. This model allows the researcher to interrupt the participant throughout the journey to ask any clarification questions they may need.

Passive inquiry

The participant performing their tasks without engagement from the researcher. The participant completes their task as if nobody is watching and the research silently observes their behavior. In this model, all questions regarding the participant’s interactions are asked at the end after the task is complete.

Context inquiry o involves collecting and analyzing detailed information about:

  • The intended users
  • Their tasks
  • The tools that support the users’ goals
  • The physical environment in which a product will be used
  • The technical environment and associated technical constraints
  • Other contextual factors that will affect the user experience

Procedure for Contextual Inquiry


Planning a contextual inquiry involves identifying, locating, and getting consent from the appropriate users and stakeholders that you want to interview.

In the contextual inquiry, interviews are often easier to arrange than traditional interviews, primarily because the bulk of the contextual interview involves observers watching users perform job-related tasks and interacting with their colleagues in a work environment. The observation and interviews intertwine with the user’s workday.

Conducting a session

Conduct a traditional interview at the beginning of a session to gather information about the user’s work and start to establish trust and rapport with the user. An interviewer does this by promising confidentiality and explaining the reason for the interview.

Switch from a traditional interview to a master-apprentice relationship where the user is the master and you are the apprentice. Indicate to your users your intent to watch them perform their given work tasks to learn the rationale that guides their actions.

Observe the users as they work. The interviewer, who assumes the role of apprentice, should only be observing and occasionally interrupt to ask questions about actions that occurred in the session. Do not hesitate to ask questions. During the interview, it is impossible to know what questions will be relevant.

Observe and record the user's actions in as much detail as possible. When observing the users, remember your focus and ask probing or clarifying questions, as appropriate.

The four principles of contextual inquiry are:


The interview must take place in the context of use. Usually, this is conducted in a workplace or home setting but now that we are in the digital age, we can conduct contextual inquires in a wider range of settings and scenarios.

The researcher observes the use of the product and talks to the participant about what has happened in the session. Also, it is possible to explore previous interactions that are not observed before.


There should be a collaborative partnership between the researcher and the participant to better understand what the participant is doing and why.

A contextual interview starts with observation and shifts to the discussion, which tackles the things that happened in rapid shifts throughout the interview.

Mutual interpretation

This involves the researcher explaining the conclusions and interpretations of the participant throughout the interview. The participant can correct or add more insights to the researcher’s interpretations.


It is important for the researcher to stay focused on the topics that need exploration in order to provide insightful data needed to make improvements on the project’s scope.

The researcher can ask the participant to perform specific tasks if they are to be examined during the research brief.

The Structure of a Contextual Interview


This is the part of the interview where the interviewer and user establish trust and communication. The researcher will introduce themselves, the purpose of the research, and any other relevant information. They may ask if the interview can be recorded and when recording should stop/start.

The Main Body

This is where the researcher focuses on their outline planning and observes the user working with the product. They discuss what is seen. Take notes and (if applicable) make recordings (video).

The Wrap Up

This phase involves the research retelling their observations and conclusions to the user and allowing the user to have input into clearing up any misconceptions or to enlarge on important points.

Context of Use Analysis

Collecting and analyzing detailed information about the intended users, their tasks, and technical and environmental constraints. The data for a context of use analysis can be gathered using interviews, workshops, surveys, site visits, artifact analysis, focus groups, observational studies, and contextual inquiry.

The main goals are:

Ensure that all factors that relate to use of the system are identified before design work starts.

Provide a basis for designing later usability tests

Longitudinal Study

A longitudinal study captures data over a period of time (days, weeks, months, or years) to understand the long-term effects of changes in products, processes, or environment.

Many usability methods like usability testing focus on initial use (learnability). Longitudinal studies focus on long-term effectiveness and satisfaction. A longitudinal study involves the repeated observations or examination of a group of users over time, at regular intervals, with respect to one or more study variables. Longitudinal studies are mainly done in order to follow changes in perception, behaviors, attitudes, and motivation of use. Such studies may be conducted over the duration of anywhere from a few days to several decades.

Contextual Inquiry for collection of data

In the Requirement Engineering stage and literature demonstrates that gathering good data at this stage is inherently difficult and really challenging. Various data gathering techniques were combined during Inquiry for this study. The technique involved preparing questionnaires, contextual interviews, and naturalistic observations to explore employee use cases.

Development of work models

Work models explore various types of users, their roles, primary and secondary actions, major and minor influencers of cultural traits

Pragmatic analysis of data

It includes the extended analysis for higher accuracy of expert understanding of the data collected. It also includes demographic methods and programmatic means of validating data against the data collected through user interaction and intuitive judgment. This section serves as the second-order analysis of the collected data.

Deriving aspects from the Contextual Inquiry

Certain interesting insights were discovered after collecting and analyzing the data. These aspects have been considered for extensions of the dimensions of work engagement Cognitive, Emotional, and Physical dimensions. They serve as the initial seed for future contextual designs.

Six best practices to keep in mind during a contextual inquiry

  • Record when possible.
  • Speak with one participant at a time.
  • Encourage participants to think out loud.
  • Notate body language and non-verbal signals.
  • Do not put participants under pressure.
  • Plan time for analyzing results.

Contextual inquiries are one of the richer forms of user research. They are a great way to validate the need for your product while gaining insight into how users currently solve the problem you are trying to fix.

The Advantages of Contextual Interviewing

  1. The veracity of information observing users in their natural environment tends to lead to very accurate information
  2. This kind of study produces highly detailed information as opposed to many other qualitative methods which produce more high-level information
  3. The flexibility of the method contextual research can be carried out wherever a user operates
  4. Ability to observe nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions.
  5. Helps refine persona and scenario development prior to jumping into the design.
  6. As contextual inquiry is led by the participants, it takes whatever course the user wants to give it as well as flexibility from their point of view.

The Drawbacks of Contextual Interviewing

  1. 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.
  2. Time and resource-intensive. Visiting a user and conducting in-depth observations takes more time than many other research methods and as such can be more costly too.
  3. 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. The analysis depends on the capability of the observer. Your mere presence influences their activity and is not 100% natural.
  5. Intensive use of time; Can be costly when compared to other research methods. Approaching participants takes a certain type of personality to do so effectively.

Contextual interviewing offers deep insight into how users actually use a product. It’s a very effective research technique that can be deployed at any stage of UX research and 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 processor when a simple shadowing exercise can yield the necessary results.

An enthusiastic UX designer optimizing various design principles and research methods to make products usable to a wide-arrayed customer base.