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How To Learn More About Your Users With A Contextual Inquiry


When product teams need to gain insights about their users, they often rely on usability testing and user interviews. While both techniques are useful, they have one crucial downside—both user interviews and usability testing don’t allow us to see how a user interacts with a product in context. Test participants either follow a predefined set of tasks or answer a specific list of questions. Oftentimes, test participants don’t have a complete understanding of why they are asked to do particular things. 

But there is one technique that allows researchers to observe people performing their tasks, and have participants explain what they are doing while they are doing it. This technique is called contextual inquiry.

The term “contextual inquiry” is unfamiliar to most people outside the field of user experience design. But even people in the UX design field quite often don’t understand what contextual inquiry involves.

In this article, I’ll discuss the concept of contextual inquiry, common problems that research teams face when conducting contextual inquiries, and how better to run them.

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What is a contextual inquiry?

A contextual inquiry is a user research technique that involves observing and interviewing people while they perform tasks in context. This technique is a mix of qualitative research and user interviews. The person who conducts a contextual inquiry (the researcher) observes how participants perform the tasks, and has them describe what they are doing while they are interacting with a product.

In comparison to other user research techniques, contextual inquiries are less formal than lab tests. As a result, they provide more natural and realistic results. By seeing what users do in context, it is easier to imagine how products are used in the real world.

You might also like: Conducting User Interviews: How to do it Right.

When to use contextual inquiry

There are two areas where contextual inquiries are especially helpful.

1. Improving existing user journeys

Contextual inquiries can be used to find ways to improve the user journey. Observing a participant interacting with a product can help a researcher understand what a participant likes and dislikes about a product, what they think is necessary and unnecessary, and in what parts of the user journey they face friction.

Example: An ecommerce company wants to improve their online ordering process. The researcher can observe customers surfing the website on their devices, adding products to their carts, and completing the order process. The researcher will also notice what parts of the flow cause friction.

2. Validating concepts

Contextual inquiries can be used to better understand use cases for a new product idea. Observing a participant interacting with a product can help the researcher understand what aspects of this product are valuable for the user. 

Example: A company has an idea about a new product for musicians. The product team creates a prototype of this product and a researcher passes out this prototype to participants. Participants are assigned specific tasks to complete (such as creating a new music track using this tool). After the interaction, the researcher asks participants questions about their experience with the product.

The principles of contextual inquiry

contextual inquiry: principles

There are three main principles of contextual inquiry.

1. It’s goal-oriented

Before going into a contextual inquiry, the research team should clearly understand what problem a company wants to solve with the help of the inquiry.

Depending on the goal, researchers may want to focus on particular user behavior (the particular behavior they want to examine), and may ask participants to perform specific tasks. Having a clear goal will help researchers maintain focus on relevant questions during the inquiry. 

2. It happens in context

The key difference between contextual inquiries and other research methods is that contextual inquiries occur in context. The contextual inquiry session must take place in the context of use—in the environment in which participants normally perform tasks. Typically the context of use is a workplace or home.

While modern technologies allow running remote sessions, it’s recommended to conduct in-person sessions because a lot of information (such as body language) is only available when the researcher shares physical space with the participant.

3. It includes conversation

An honest conversation is an essential part of a contextual inquiry. During the session, the researcher can naturally shift from observation to discussion. The opportunity to ask clarifying questions about the participant’s behavior is the thing that makes a contextual inquiry so powerful. 

“The opportunity to ask clarifying questions about the participant’s behavior is the thing that makes a contextual inquiry so powerful.”

Contextual inquiries are all about having an open dialogue between two persons—participant and researcher—where the participants feel welcomed to take an active part of the conversation. The participant should always correct the researcher if the researcher makes an incorrect assumption about the user behavior.

The structure of a contextual inquiry

It’s possible to define three phases of contextual inquiry: introduction, interaction with a product, and wrap up. It’s most effective when a contextual inquiry is conducted in a way that the phases flow naturally together.

1. Introduction

Before starting the actual inquiry session, it’s vital to establish trust between researcher and participant. The researcher should introduce themselves, describe the purpose of the research, and provide all relevant information about the session (such as the time required for the session, tasks that will be carried out, questions that will be asked, etc.).

If the researcher plans to make a video recording of user interactions, it’s vital to get permission from the participant to do so. Participants may want to know how the video will be used, so it’s crucial to give them all the necessary details.

2. Interaction with a product

Interaction with a product is the part of the inquiry where the researcher observes how the user completes particular tasks. A researcher can ask contextually relevant questions and take notes about user behavior.

3. Wrap up

The wrap up phase is where the researchers summarize the results of the session and make conclusions about user behavior. The researcher shares their thoughts with the participant, and the participant can correct the researcher or provide additional points they think are important.

You might also like: Research 101: How to Conduct Market Research for Your App.

Two models of contextual inquiry

As I’ve mentioned above, a contextual inquiry is based on collaboration between the researcher and the participant. There are two main models of interaction: active inquiry and passive inquiry.

1. Active inquiry

The active inquiry occurs when the participants talk through all the tasks they are performing. By doing this, they provide additional information about the process. The researcher can interrupt the participant in the middle of tasks to ask clarifying questions.

2. Passive inquiry

In this model, the participant performs their tasks as if nobody’s watching. The researcher doesn’t interrupt their tasks; they silently observe what the participant does and make notes about the interaction. All the questions about the interaction are asked at the completion of the observation.

Questions for contextual inquiries

Generally, you can ask two types of questions during the contextual inquiry: questions about current behavior, and questions about potential changes. 

Questions like, “Why did you click on this button?” are behavioral, and they are asked in response to something a participant did. 

Questions like, “What would you suggest to add to the product to make it better?” or, “What did you like/dislike about this product?” help participants articulate responses about their needs or formulate requests for changes.

It’s important to prepare a list of both types of questions for the session. At the same time, the researcher doesn’t have to ask all questions from the list (remember that contextual inquiries are not the same as user interviews!). 

How to run a successful contextual inquiry

contextual inquiry: running

Of all the research techniques, a contextual inquiry is one of the most difficult to perform because an effective contextual inquiry session requires a careful balance between traditional interviewing and ethnographic observation. 

In the article Why Are Contextual Inquiries So Difficult, Jim Ross describes typical problems researchers encounter in contextual inquiries, and shares excellent recommendations on how to overcome them. 

Below, I want to provide general tips that are helpful for most contextual inquiries.

1. Carefully select test participants

All research testing methods stress the importance of selecting test participants. But for a contextual inquiry, it’s important not only to recruit people who are carrying out the tasks you want to examine on a regular basis, but also to select those who will openly share their experiences with you.

A contextual inquiry requires participants to take an active role in the session and be ready to demonstrate and talk about their tasks without waiting for you to ask questions.

2. One participant at a time

Many research teams make the same mistake—they try to turn a contextual inquiry into a group session. When you have multiple participants per one researcher, the researcher won’t be able to dedicate enough time to observe every participant. This means they usually end up missing important details about the interaction. 

“Many research teams make the same mistake—they try to turn a contextual inquiry into a group session.”

It’s vital to remember that contextual inquiries are individual sessions. It’s recommended to have no more than one participant per session. 

3. Establish enough time for the session

Two hours is usually the limit on the time you can expect participants to spend in one session. It’s a common problem that research teams cannot fit the tasks into a two hour frame. If you face this problem, I recommend you do the following:

  • Prepare a full list of tasks and ask your participants to measure how much time they usually spend on individual tasks. Add to this the extra time required for discussion.
  • If you see that you can’t fit all tasks in a two hour session, split the tasks into two more sessions. But don’t schedule two or more sessions on the same day, or you will risk overwhelming your participants.

4. Be flexible

Contextual inquiries are flexible sessions, meaning that they can flow naturally in whatever direction participants take them. They are not like traditional interviews or usability testing sessions where the researcher follows a specific set of questions or tasks.

The researcher has an agenda of topics that she wants to discuss with participants and tasks that she wants to observe, but ultimately it’s important to be flexible and be ready to adapt to situations.

5. Allow test participants to speak out loud

One of the challenges of a contextual inquiry is that you need not only to get participants to perform tasks, but also talk to you about what they are doing. Sometimes you need to remind participants that they can (and should) talk out loud.

But do not force them to talk with you all the time—when people stop doing things and start answering your questions, they will wait for further questions instead of going back to performing their task.

6. Don’t put participants under pressure

When you put participants under pressure, they will start giving you the things you want to hear, rather than their own truthful experiences. It is vital to reassure the participant that they are not being tested, but rather that they are testing the product.

7. Grasp emotions and habits

One of the advantages of contextual inquiries is the ability to take non-verbal cues from the participants. A researcher should be good at body language decoding. They need to track participants’ moods and habits as they interact with a product.

8. Plan time for analyzing results

Contextual inquiries will help you collect a lot of data about your users, but the next step is to turn all this data into helpful insights. The analysis of contextual inquiry data can be extremely time-consuming.

Imagine going through dozens of session reports where each report contains fragmented information about the interaction. So estimate and set a realistic amount of time for analyzing the results. Generally, the researcher should expect at least one hour of analysis for each hour they’ve spent on the research sessions.

You might also like: How to Build Usability Testing Into Everything You Do.

Deepen your user understanding

Contextual inquiries offer deep insight into how users actually use a product. This technique can be an excellent source of highly detailed information about your users and their preferences. But contextual inquiries are best when used together with other research methods. Thus, be flexible in combining contextual inquiries with other research methods to get the information you need.

Have you used contextual inquiries? Tell us about your experience below.

This article originally appeared on the Shopify Web Design and Development blog and is made available here to educate and cast a wider net of discovery.
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