Contextual Inquiry

Understand what really makes your users tick

An article by Konrad Black 15-11-2017

What is Contextual Inquiry?

Simply put, Contextual Inquiry collects real world data from real world scenarios by getting out of the office and into people’s homes, their daily commute, their workplace, their lives. This means we’re able to really get into their heads, understand their perspectives and expectations, as well as any physical, environmental or other limitations they may have.

It’s such a useful research method for the UX community because it incorporates both behavioural observation and face-to-face interviews (or user testing) to understand what tasks users perform to reach their goal and the experience they had along the way.

Why do it?

Contextual inquiry provides you with an accurate reality of a problem space or people’s individual problems that need solving. It also shows you how users are interacting with your product or service in a truly objective way, free from assumption and certain biases (e.g. a controlled environment like a lab), which better informs design decisions later on.

Ultimately everyone benefits. UX consultants benefit from the quality and authenticity of research, helping them to design better products and services. Participants benefit from updates to products and services that actually meet their needs and expectations. Organisations benefit from an increased understanding of their customers, and by virtue of this, an increase in revenue as a result of greater use of their products and services by users who are more delighted with them. 

For the UX consultant, another key benefit contextual inquiry brings is that of rigor to the rest of your research. It ensures that there’s no one bias towards any one source of findings and that the findings are grounded in the a real world truth. It provides your personas with a deeper and richer background story. It also helps provide the emotion and thinking needed to capture on outputs such as customer journey or experience maps.

By blending qualitative and quantitative findings together, in a method we call ‘triangulation’, we’re able to take the findings from one-to-one depth interviews, data from online surveys and analytics and observations from contextual inquiry to provide a robust, balanced, accurate and truthful analysis of real users, using products and services in the real world. 

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Relying on one source of data when making key strategy or design decisions is something too many businesses do these days unfortunately, particularly as pulling off analytics data is seen as fairly cheap and easy. Seeing raw numbers can make research seem more official, accurate and unquestionable to some people. 

Likewise, conducting user tests in a lab or remote A/B testing might tell you how useful a product or service is to use. It will highlight key usability issues that users may encounter or provide opportunities to test different variations of a design to see which is the clear winner in terms of conversion stats. But again, it doesn’t give you the WHY - there’s nothing about context, what’s going on in users mind beyond the tasks you’ve asked them to perform. 

We believe you should be conducting research holistically, seeking answers to the WHY questions if you’re to really explore the truths behind what users think of your products and services...and even you as a brand!

Experiences are powerfully intertwined with our emotions. Looking at the raw numbers alone gives us very little clue as to a user’s emotion at the point of interacting with your product or service (ok, a high exit rate on reaching a mandatory registration page while in the middle of a checkout might be fairly obvious, but not always). 

From a UX consultant’s perspective:

1. Good user recruitment is essential

We’ve found that it can be really hard to find people who are willing to open up their private lives, even if they’re die-hard fans of your brand or products/services. We would recommend using a trusted research recruitment partner to help you reach a broader pool of people beyond the very ‘warm’ audiences a client has. This ‘colder’ audience base will add impartiality & robustness to your research.

2. Capture ongoing data beyond the immediate time you spend with participants

Generally the more information you can gather over time, the better. While this isn’t always possible or necessary, asking participants to provide a daily update to capture their context, tasks, experiences, emotions etc is great at building a richer picture of their lives in reality. You can do this by supplying a diary or asking participants to upload video or audio or even jump on a Hangout or phone call on a daily basis to capture their thoughts, feelings, emotions and daily experiences.

3. Study and record the surroundings the user is in

We like to use a mixture of recording methods, from pen & paper to quickly jot notes to video and audio recording of tasks or conversations. We also try to photograph the setting(s) so that we have a visual cue to refer to when we begin to really analyse the findings later on. 

Preparing a simple checklist of the key things to make note of when out in the field can also be really helpful in reminding you about what to capture and when. Our checklist is;

  • Location: is it rural 18th century thatched cottage or urban tower block where the participant is on 16th floor? Is the participant in a public or private environment?
  • Time: are you there morning or evening, weekday at work or weekend?
  • People: who’s there, is it just the participant or are other people there too? How many? Are there conversations going on between them?
  • Context: what is the participant doing at that moment? front of the TV in a post supper slump or in the car on their daily commute to work?
  • Interaction: how is the user interacting with your brand/product/service? 
  • Frequency: how often are participants performing these tasks?


In short, contextual inquiry is crucial if you want to really know how your users live and use your products/services day to day.

The beauty is it’s all about empathising with users, observing how they go about completing the tasks that are meaningful to them, learning about what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling before, during and after they interact with your brand - and why they’re doing it!

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