Contextual Inquiry Part 2: Defusing Objections to Using Contextual Inquiry

By David Hoberman


Contextual Inquiry is a method adapted from ethnographic research which combines interviews, observational research, and task learning sited within the operational (work) environment. In our previous post, we defined what the method is, when it is best used (exploratory user research) and why (rich detail around context-of-use). 

Three of the most common objections we hear to using contextual inquiry are: 

  • We don’t have time.
  • It costs too much.
  • It’s too disruptive.

       It’s true that executing a contextual inquiry study requires a time investment, not only for the initial interviews, but for the observational periods, and then sufficient analysis following the study. The research team needs to have enough resources to interview, notetake, and record. Access to an appropriate range of representative users in their work environment(s) needs to be secured, and appropriate introductions made to set expectations for researchers, participants, and their coworkers. However, within even the constraints of a fast-moving project, there are ways to scope a contextual inquiry study to make the most of the limited resources available.

      Let’s examine each objection, see what the tradeoffs are, and how careful execution could mitigate some of these concerns.

“We don’t have time.”

        It’s always challenging to integrate research into a fast-moving project, but depending on the particular user tasks your team is investigating, a contextual inquiry study could be performed in as little as half a day, with several pairs of researchers operating concurrently, observing users for an hour or two at a time. The more predictable and narrow the scope of the tasks, the shorter the time period could be. How much time will it cost you to redesign a product developed without an adequate understanding of how the user gets their work done?

“It costs too much.”

        At the lean end, a single pair of researchers could spend a day observing 3-5 users. The more variable or complex their tasks are, the more important it is to observe enough users to have a representative sample. How much money will it cost you to refactor a product developed without an adequate understanding of the various ways different users accomplish the same tasks?

“It’s too disruptive.”

        While initial interviews with users do require undivided attention, the beauty of the following observation period is that the user just keeps working, with the degree of interaction between the researcher and user previously set, from observation only to the fully participatory model mentioned earlier. With adequate preparation so everybody knows what to expect upfront, since contextual inquiry occurs at the user’s workplace, it’s less disruptive than more formal studies where the user has to take time away from work to travel to and from wherever the study is conducted. How disruptive will it be to your business model to launch a product developed without understanding the context in which your users operate?

       Ultimately, it comes down to a clear-eyed assessment of your team’s understanding of their users and how they actually perform their work in their environment. If your team could give an accurate “day in the life of the user” description to one of their users - not just how they use the product but describing the tasks they do every day, the tools they use, the other parties they interact with, the thousand competing distractions and problems right down to what it’s like to work wherever they are - then a more targeted approach may be appropriate. But if your team has never seen someone using their product outside of a controlled environment, and their understanding of that user’s job is essentially limited to a high-level workflow, then the potential benefits of spending even a few hours with a few representatives users are immense.


Check out Part 1 of our two-part contextual inquiry series here.


READ MORE: Methodology Spotlight: Online Diaries, 3 Best Practices for Hiring Top UX'ers, Presumptive CJM'sThree Superpowers that Make Up A Great Ethnographic Researcher