Like all user research, contextual inquiry starts from a place of curiosity instead of assumption. To get the most out of contextual inquiry methods, researchers should be utilizing methods of observation like recordings of use or diary studies to truly understand how a user’s context affects usability.
What is contextual inquiry?
Understanding users is paramount to user experience design. During the research phase of discovery, researchers and designers should dive into contextual inquiry to generate a root-level understanding of their target audience. Contextual inquiry methods give designers, researchers, and companies a first-hand look at users’ values, motivations, and experiences.
Contextual inquiry methods seek insights into the contexts and factors that impact how users behave, think, feel, and complete a goal. Contextual inquiry methods study users in their natural environments -– thus, remote observation and diary studies have the upper hand when using methods like these. This type of research is typically done during the discovery phase —when launching a new product, pivoting a solution, or simply just to understand the needs and constraints impacting the use of a product or service.
Why do contextual methods of inquiry matter?
In user research, contextual methods are imperative to understanding why users do what they do. With contextual inquiry, researchers and designers can understand the following:
- User thoughts
- User actions
- Designed expectations
- How users perform tasks
- How users deal with disruptions
User thoughts, user actions, and designed expectations
It is easy to assume that most people know how they would behave — theoretically, you should just be able to paint a scenario, and the user would be able to tell you precisely how they would act. However, this is often not the case. If people knew and could articulate the exact actions that they would take, designing services, experiences, and products would be rather simple. However, most users don’t actually know what they would do, which is why the need for user experience research is becoming greater by the day. Whether remotely observing users as in a field study or analyzing diary studies, researchers and designers are able to gather deeper insights into what truly happens during the use of a product or service.
For example, users booking a fight on an airline app for their next international getaway should be able to book rather simply and quickly. If you were to ask users how they would go about booking in this scenario, most would be able to at the very least tell you that they would go to a website, search dates, select a flight, and book the trip.
However, a dairy study of such a scenario may reveal that users may watch airfare prices for a few weeks or that they go through the process of booking to only cancel at the last step. Contextual inquiry methods like diary studies may illuminate that users booking international travel have a hard time booking travel with a group or that they may not want to commit to a trip until they have booked a hotel. Whatever the reason, these roadblocks that come up during actual use are the most beneficial to developing products and services that people will use.
In this scenario of booking a flight, it is easy to see that users don’t know how they will actually behave; however, often most products, services, and experiences are designed to be used in a specific way. The issue here is that designing a way for people to use products doesn’t work either.
A diary study may reveal that people using a nutrition app aren’t inputting their meals in an expected manner. This method of contextual inquiry may reveal that people have a variety of ways to label and categorize meals outside of the traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With some users eating 6 meals a day, the design team for the nutrition app is now able to understand that there may be a degree of customizability to build into the app to include alternative eating styles.
How users perform tasks & deal with disruptions
When users perform tasks, a simple task analysis should be sufficient to understand how to build a better product or service — or so it is thought. Designers and researchers can’t account for the workarounds, disruptions, and resources used during the actual use of products and services.
While working on a banking app, designers may not realize that a large segment of their audience is parents, and thus, are often disrupted while logging information. Knowing that kids may distract parents from completing a task in one sitting, designers may introduce an autosave feature that would allow parents to resume a started task upon their next login.
A contextual inquiry method like a diary study or direct observation like recorded use may reveal that products and services could be designed to match user actions, detract from disruption, or provide previously unavailable resources.
How users leverage resources & people to achieve goals
Everyday users come upon frustrations in tasks that should be relatively straightforward. Filling out forms for the government is a considerable pain for many, yet these forms persist. However, a little research could go a long way in improving the form completion rate and user satisfaction. When many go to use a form filler for their passport, users may find part of the way through that they need information from their birth certificate as well as information on relatives. This may require a user to call a parent or look for a piece of paperwork, which interrupts the task flow. A contextual inquiry method of observation would allow designers and researchers to see exactly how users were completing tasks. In this example, designers may add content about what information users may need to have on hand before beginning the form.
The case for methods of contextual inquiries
Contextual inquiries are one of the most powerful research methods at the disposal of any team. As more services and products come into the marketplace, there is a growing need to not only who is using these products and services but also how they are being used and experienced. Contextual inquiries allow users to get to the root of how to design cutting-edge products that will entice use for years to come.
Designers and researchers should feel empowered to apply methods like these more readily to truly understand how to build products that people use and enjoy. The insights gained from this research can be transformative for businesses and empowering for users.