#03 What Is A Contextual Inquiry? How Do You Run One?
In user research, "believe half of what you see and none of what you hear."
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Have you ever wondered whether users would even have a need for your product?
Do you need help validating an idea you're developing for your next project?
Allan Poe said, “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear”. This cannot be more true when it comes to user research.
How often have we been warned not to ask, “Would you pay for this product?”
Why? Because humans often say one thing and do another. That’s why it’s important to ground our research through interviews AND observations.
Take this as a sign for your to start using Contextual Inquiry to gain an understanding of how users engage with complex systems and processes as well as from the perspective of expert users.
Contextual Inquiry can help clarify pain points to help guide your design decisions moving forward. Once you understand these pain points — or the things that worked well, you can design a solution to help improve the existing user journey.
Go beyond user interviews with contextual inquiries
Contextual inquiries are user interviews and observations to learn how they use your product or service, and why they do what they do.
One of the advantages of this methodology is its ability to help you see things you wouldn't normally see and unearth minute nuances that have become habitual and invisible.
You get to observe the interruptions, superstitious behaviours, and illogical procedures that have a direct impact on your UX work.
Remember when Quibi fell hard?
Quibi was one of the most hyped startups of 2020. It raised $1.75 billion and had lined up A-list actors and producers for its content. So why did they fail in spectacular fashion?
The inability to share content on other social media. Something as simple as adding a share button was totally overlooked. Other examples like this and not considering core user behaviours ultimately led their business to bankruptcy.
So, if your team keeps struggling to understand participants’ habitual activities and failing to define the root problem of your product or service — then you need to start rethinking the approach you take to learn about your users.
How to plan your contextual inquiry
Step 1 - Introduction
Introduce this ethnographic research method to your stakeholders and help them understand the importance of contextual inquiries. Explain why this approach is suitable and what you hope to uncover about the users.
Step 2 - Contextual inquiry guide
Create a contextual inquiry guide. A good interview guide paves the way for a deep, free-flowing conversation with participants. Your guide should include concise open-ended questions to encourage participants to tell their stories.
Step 3 - Recruit participants
Reach out to 5 or so existing users (or customers) and ask if they’re willing to be interviewed at their place of work.
Step 4 - Agenda
Plan an agenda with allocated slots for all intended activities. Here’s a recommended agenda for your team’s contextual inquiry onsite visit:
Tour of the workplace (20 minutes)
Group interview (30 minutes)
Individual Interviews & observations (60 minutes). This is essential to include so you can observe how the users use your product in real life.
A team debriefing session (30 minutes).
Step 5 - Brief your team!
Make sure to tackle the following topics:
Research context & goals
4 Principles of Contextual Inquiry
What to watch out for
Contextual inquiry guide
Roles & responsibilities
Here’s a different way to look at contextual inquiries. Imagine you’re starting a new job and it’s your first day. Everything is new. You observe how people interact, how people behave, and how things work. Imposing your will and how you did things previously won’t go down too well — especially immediately with your new colleagues.
The key takeaways that you can get from my hypothetical example reveal the advantages of using contextual inquiry in user design research.
The method gives you detailed information gathering, is user-centered, increases your chance to gather highly accurate information, and is performed in the participant’s natural environment — giving you real user insights.
Contextual inquiry is really one of the most insightful research options available. It provides a wealth amount of information to support product development. However, a contextual inquiry is indeed time-consuming and more costly than other methods, so it's paramount that you get it right.
Want to learn more?
If you're interested in running this play to have better Contextual Inquiries, join designers from 40+ countries using UX Playbook. Get detailed step-by-step guides and templates to supercharge your UX process.
I hope you found this helpful.
See ya next week