Contextual Inquiry: What People Actually Do vs. What People Say They Do

040707-N-6932B-042 Marine Corps Base Hawaii (July 7, 2004) Ñ U.S. Navy air traffic controllers monitor and direct the launch and recovery of all aircraft at Marine Corps Base Hawaii during exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2004. RIMPAC is the largest international maritime exercise in the waters around the Hawaiian Islands. This years exercise includes seven participating nations; Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. RIMPAC is intended to enhance the tactical proficiency of participating units in a wide array of combined operations at sea, while enhancing stability in the Pacific Rim region. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Richard J. Brunson (RELEASED) For more information go to:

Contextual inquiry (CI) research has been a growing request from our clients over the past year. While we love to be out in the field as much as the next researcher, it begs the question of “is this just a trend or is there a real growing need for CI?” So, how do you decide whether CI is the right method for your research project?

A good place to start is to consider where CI came from. It is based on cultural anthropology approaches or simply speaking, observing people in their “natural habitat”. There are definitely times when this is not even possible, for example, our founder Greg Liddell worked at Johnson Space Center to help assess man-machine requirements for living and working on long-duration space missions. He would have loved to observe astronauts on Mir or the International Space Station, but NASA wasn’t going to send him there to conduct research! In these situations a simulated environment becomes critical for conducting UX research. For all other environments that are more approachable, here is a list of things to consider when determining if contextual inquiry is needed for a research project to be successful:

Do my research objectives require contextual insights?

While contextual data almost always adds “color” to a research summary (e.g. pictures, video, etc.) it isn’t always necessary. If you simply want to know if your website has usability issues, you can probably find that out quickly and easily in a lab environment. If you are interviewing customers about their criteria to make purchase decisions on IT equipment, you can probably achieve the research goals with a phone call. Going into the field to observe people is really only necessitated by research objectives that include things like understanding workflows (e.g. information sources, tools that are used, workarounds to problems, etc.) or environmental factors that may impact an experience. For example, when executing research for ruggedized devices, it became abundantly clear that understanding the context in which the devices were used was incredibly important for identifying design requirements. CI clarified a wide range of environmental factors that the device would need to endure. It elucidated unique port needs for the end users and a range of lighting conditions that would need to be supported including full direct sunlight. And it revealed completely unexpected usages like pulleys to raise and lower devices by their handles through tight spaces and placing a device in the freezer in response to an overheating error message.

Do I have a specialized user that might not be available to come into a lab or an environment that cannot be easily simulated?

If you are interested in observing a consumer user setting up internet streaming for the first time, it would not be difficult to setup a living room in your usability lab and to recruit consumers that fit your target market. But what if you wanted to redesign the user interface (UI) for the system used by air traffic controllers? This can be a tall order for a lab-based test, as we quickly discovered. In order to truly understand how the air traffic controllers completed the tasks of their job, we had to be onsite watching them. It was invaluable to see the current UI (little green blips on a screen) and watch them pass a piece of paper to their coworker as a way to hand-off control of a plane (yikes!). So it is important to consider the target user and the environment when considering CI as a method.

What kind of data capturing do I need to do?

A contextual inquiry approach is great for collecting artifacts and pictures. This may be important if you are trying to streamline a very manual process with a new UI and need to take into account all of the ways they do the task currently (e.g. post-it notes, spreadsheets, etc.). If you are trying to show your stakeholders that your mobile app is better than a competitor’s mobile app then you may want video clips of facial expressions, customer comments and screenshots of the customer completing the task successfully. This is much easier to achieve in a lab with customized cameras.

Do I have the budget and schedule to support contextual inquiry?

So even if CI is an ideal methodology for a project, sometimes it just comes down to a budget and scheduling decision. It may come as a surprise to many that CI can add cost and time to a research project. Given the difficulty of getting people to agree to let you into their home or into their place of business, recruiting costs and incentives are typically higher. There is also a lot of extra time baked into the research schedule since these visits likely require travel (even if you are just driving in your car from site to site) and you have to accommodate the participant’s schedules. So for a quick turn, low budget project, CI may not be the best approach.

The next time you are considering contextual inquiry as a method for your research project, remember to take into account the research objectives, the target user, the user’s environment, and the different data capturing requirements along with any budget or schedule constraints that may be in place.