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The Value of Contextual Inquiry to UXR

The Value of Contextual Inquiry to UXR

What is Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry is a qualitative method that involves direct observation to uncover design flaws and obstacles that users cannot always state when asked. The interviews are conducted within the everyday context in which the task takes place to get a holistic view of how a product is used in real-world situations. Throughout the session, the researcher will ask questions to better understand the user’s process and identify pain points and workarounds that users have adopted to solve their problems.

The main goal of contextual inquiry is to directly understand a product’s usage and the contextual information that affects how the user leverages the product. The way different processes weave together can significantly impact the user experience. For example, a business professional may use other tools, techniques, or technologies in tandem with your product to achieve their desired results. Uncovering this information could present an opportunity to expand your features by incorporating some of the ancillary processes and functionality.

When to Use Contextual Inquiry

Complex Products or Processes

Even straightforward processes that we do daily have the potential to be improved, but contextual inquiry is most beneficial for complex flows. Things like newsletter signups and product pages that don’t require intricate design or high-level thinking from participants can be improved by contextual inquiry, but the real value is seen when the method is applied to complex activities like a chef cooking during a dinner time rush or a data analyst working with large data sets.

Products With Power Users

Contextual inquiry is especially useful when you have a group of experts or power users. For example, if you want to improve a data visualization platform like Tableau, you should consider including some of your advanced users in the study.

Since your power users have more experience with the software, they will likely have their own processes and workarounds that could turn into new features. Maybe when they explain their approach to you, they leave out a few steps verbally, although they are physically carrying out a more complex routine. Or perhaps they have subconscious habits that repeat a feature currently in the software; you might want to dig deeper into the reasoning behind this behavior. Observing the patterns of power users can improve the functionality of the product for all levels of users.

During the Exploratory Phase

Contextual inquiry is a great tool to take advantage of during the beginning stages of research when new features or products are in the exploratory phase. The data collected from contextual inquiry is critical to shaping personas, functionality, requirements, and strategy for new products or features.

During the exploratory phase, you can use contextual inquiry to learn what users do that they are unaware of and collect highly detailed information about their natural environment to improve the user experience.

How to Use Contextual Inquiry for UXR

While it’s a good idea to use contextual inquiry after some general UX testing, it is also beneficial to follow up contextual inquiry with ethnographic research. Contextual inquiry and ethnography share similar characteristics; however, if you want to understand your users holistically, both methods are necessary. Contextual inquiry will start to set the scene, while ethnography shifts the focus onto the user.

There are typically three stages of a contextual inquiry interview:

Setting the Scene

In contextual inquiry interviews, it’s common to use a “teacher” and “apprentice” relationship. The user is the teacher in this scenario since they are expected to carry out and explain their typical processes for a specific task. The researcher is the apprentice and is expected to observe and ask questions throughout the task to better understand the underlying motivations and reasoning behind the user’s behaviors.

During this interview phase, the researcher needs to establish rapport with the user to ensure they are comfortable sharing both positive and negative feedback. It will also help the user avoid ‘interview mode,’ which involves the participant providing feedback based on what they think the researcher might want to hear. Researchers will often remind their users that it’s the product being put to the test and not the user themselves.

The Interview

During a contextual interview, there is a typical 2-step process. The first step involves watching and learning from the user without obstruction. During the second step, researchers stop the user at various points to initiate a discussion about anything unclear or to confirm an interpretation of their behavior.

The interview will flow naturally, but it’s important to be aware of the underlying processes. Look for any external resources being used to support the main task, track any extraneous tasks or variations in their process, and explain your interpretations to the user so they can confirm or redirect you.

A UXR conducting a contextual inquiry with a user of her product to understand how she interacts with it in the real world

The amount of time needed to conduct contextual interviews varies widely. Some can be completed within an hour; for example, if you want to observe a data analyst complete a specific task, like data cleaning. Other interviews can take several hours or even days. These interviews are generally geared toward highly complex or specialized processes that involve working towards a main goal with many intertwined processes.

Wrapping Up

By the end of the interview, you should have many notes and very few questions left. While wrapping up, get any clarification you need about the user’s processes and ask any final questions. At this point, you can share your initial thoughts and summary with the user to explain how you interpreted their process. This is also the best time for the user to add any final thoughts or clarification regarding their behaviors during the observed process.

Things to Consider for Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry interviews can be complex and time-consuming, so preparing as much as possible is vital to get the most out of your sessions. Creating a question guide is great for building structure around your study. The question guide will serve as a general roadmap for the interview and outlines the ‘must ask’ questions so nothing is forgotten. The best interviews are a balanced combination of structure and probing, so it’s not a concern if you don’t stick to the question guide exactly.

As the researcher, you need to focus on your user’s behaviors and the questions you have throughout the interview, which makes taking detailed notes difficult. You will also want to have reference material when it comes time to build your report, so it is critical to have audio and video recordings of your sessions. Tools like EthOS allow researchers to collect screen recordings, video, and audio from participants while they use your products in their everyday lives. Researchers can then ask follow-up probing questions via text to clarify behaviors. At the end of the project, researchers will have a wealth of data they can reference while gleaning insights and building reports.

The Value of Contextual Inquiry

We all know that great UX design begins with thorough UX research, and contextual inquiry is a powerful tool that helps researchers understand complex processes deeply. Contextual inquiry is as close as it gets to walking in your user’s shoes. It allows you to see processes from their point of view, leading to empathetic designs that solve real problems.

The main benefit of contextual inquiry is collecting in-the-moment feedback that closely resembles how users interact with products in real-world scenarios. With other interviewing techniques, you have to rely heavily on recall, and users can forget essential steps they take during their process. Also, certain situations arise in real-world circumstances that would never occur in a lab. If users are observed in the context of their everyday lives while performing a task, user research teams will have richer insights that lead to better product design.


Contextual inquiry is a powerful tool for user experience researchers as it can lead to breakthrough new features and products. Few methods provide researchers with the means to walk in their users’ shoes and see the actual context of product interaction the way contextual inquiry does.