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Contextual Inquiry 

What is it?

Contextual inquiry is basically a structured field interviewing method, based on a few core principles that differentiate this method from plain, journalistic interviewing. Contextual inquiry is more a discovery process than an evaluative process; more like learning than testing.

Contextual inquiry is based on three core principles: that understanding the context in which a product is used (the work being performed) is essential for elegant design, that the user is a partner in the design process, and that the usability design process, including assessment methods like contextual inquiry and usability testing, must have a focus.

For example, suppose you need to assess the usability of a wrench for automotive repair. Using contextual inquiry, you'd visit mechanics at auto repair shops and see how they work. You'd take in not only physical arrangements such as the location of the tool chests, or cramped conditions inside engine compartments, but also environmental concerns, such as the level of cleanliness of their hands, or the noise level in the shop, or the tight schedules imposed by their bosses. All of these would help define a context for their work--and thus a context for the usage of your product, the wrench.

You'd also listen to their gripes about your product; how it slips out of their hands if they've been working on greasy stuff, how it gnaws the corners off stubborn bolts. You'd ask them what would make their jobs easier; what design changes would help them. They're a partner in the design process.

Of course, you'd conduct all this research centering on the one thing you're analyzing: the wrench. This focus is important--it sets the goals for the visit ("We need to know how they store their wrenches"). Once you're done with your site visit, you can assess from your notes whether you found out what you needed to know.

How do I do it?

Contextual inquiry follows many of the same process steps as field observations or interviews. Different considerations are kept in mind, however, with some portions of the process.

For example, interviewing during a contextual inquiry study usually does not include set, broadly worded questions. Instead, the partnership between the interviewer and interviewee is used to create a dialogue, one where the interviewer can not only determine the user's opinions and experiences, but also his or her motivations and context.

A lot of times, just having the interviewer around is going to make the interviewee a bit edgy. As the interviewer, you really need to be part of the user's world to be effective--sometimes, it takes a while before they're used to you hanging around. At that point, the job becomes much easier, since the users you interview will be more at ease with telling you what they really think about your product.

This usually means that this is a long-term study; you set up a relationship with the organization you're studying and agree on when you're going to visit, how often you'll be on site, and how long you'll be there each time. It's a lot like ethnographic studies where the ethnographer goes off to live in a particular culture for a year or two.

Figuring out who to interview is very important. Many times, the end user you're keeping in mind isn't the person that's going to be affected the most by your design or redesign. For example, when many corporate applications change or are upgraded, the person that is affected the most is the management information systems (MIS) person who has to go around and install the application on every computer in the building. Hanging around that person for a day will certainly give you an appreciation for ensuring that the installation process and interface is well designed.

Once you're done with the visit, assess whether you met your goals for the visit. Analyze your notes to determine questions for your next visit.

When should I use this technique?

Contextual inquiry is one of the best methods to use when you really need to understand the users' work context. Many times, the environment in which people work really influences how people use a product. It sounds like a cliche', but there really are people who print out their email and mark it up with comments before replying.

Also, this technique is great for finding out about work practices in domains that you know nothing about--whether it's lawyers looking up cases in a digital library, or roughnecks on an oil rig, or soldiers cooped up in a tank.

This technique is best used in the early stages of development, since a lot of the information you'll get is subjective--how people feel about their jobs, how work or information flows through the organization, etc.

Who can tell me more?

Click on any of the following links for more information:

Beyer, Hugh, "Getting Started with Contextual Techniques".

Beyer, Hugh, and Holtzblatt, Karen, "Apprenticing with the Customer: A Collaborative Approach to Requirements Definition," Communications of the ACM, May 1995.

Beyer, Hugh, and Holtzblatt, Karen, Contextual Design : A Customer-Centered Approach to Systems Designs, 1997, Morgan Kaufman Publishers, ISBN: 1558604111

Holtzblatt, Karen, and Beyer, Hugh, "Making Customer-Centered Design Work for Teams," Communications of the ACM, October 1993.

Holtzblatt, K., and Jones, S. "Contextual Inquiry: A Participatory Technique for System Design.'' in Schuler, D., and Namioka, A. (eds.) Participatory Design: Principles and Practice. Lawrence Earlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ. 1993: 180-193.

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