Contextual Inquiry is a field data gathering technique for examining and understanding end users and their workplace, tasks, issues, and preferences. It is a semi-structured interview method to obtain information about the context of use, where users are first asked a set of standard questions and then observed and questioned while they work in their own environments.


Contextual interviewing offers deep insight into how users actually use a product. This qualitative research technique is generally used at the beginning of the design process and is good for getting rich information about work practices, the social, technical, and physical environments, and user tools.


Contextual interviews are based on four guiding principles:

  • Context – as you might expect, the interview must take place in the context of use. Typically this has been in a workplace or home environment but with the advent of the mobile Internet – contextual interviews may now take place in a wider range of settings and scenarios. The research observes the use of the product and talks to the user about what has happened in the observed session. They may also explore previous interactions, which are not observed at the time.
  • Partnership – there is a need for the user and researcher to form a collaborative partnership to understand what the user is doing and why. In general, a contextual interview will shift from observing to discussing what happened in rapid shifts throughout the interview.
  • Mutual interpretation – the researcher will explain their conclusions and interpretations with the user throughout the interview. The user is free to correct or expand on the researcher’s interpretations.
  • Focus – the researcher must keep the interview focused on the topics, which need to be explored to provide useful data for the improvement project’s scope. They may ask the user to perform specific tasks if they are to be examined specifically in the project brief.


  • Preparing for a contextual inquiry interview- The research team needs to adequately prepare for a contextual interview and determine what they will examine with the users and how this will be done. This should be distilled into a research brief, which the researcher can use throughout the contextual interview.

The user should also be prepared for the interview. In particular, it is important to reassure the user that they are not under the microscope and are not being tested but rather that the product is being tested with them carrying out the tests. It is important that the user is not made to feel pressured as this can result

in users telling researchers what they think the researcher wants to hear rather than their own truthful experiences.

  • Introduction of interviewer and interviewee- this is the part of the interview where the interviewer and user establish trust and communication. The researcher will introduce themselves, the purpose of the research and any other relevant information. They may ask if the interview can be recorded and when recording should stop/start. They will usually offer assurances regarding confidentiality of the user’s data and permission to use the data anonymously as part of high-level overviews of the research’s findings. They may also establish what tasks will be carried out and how the format of the interview will take place.
  • Observation- this is where the researcher focuses on their outline planning and observes the user working with the product. They discuss what is seen. Take notes and (if applicable) make recordings (video).
  • Summarization- this phase involves the research retelling their observations and conclusions to the user and allowing the user to have input into clearing up any misconceptions or to enlarge on important points.

For contextual research to yield the best results, you want to work with users who are actually carrying out the tasks you want to examine on a regular or semi-regular basis.


There are good reasons to use contextual interviewing in your research including:

  • The ability to reveal information and understanding that users might not be aware of
  • The veracity of information – observing users in their natural environment tends to lead to very accurate information
  • The detail of the information – this kind of study produces highly detailed information as opposed to many other qualitative methods which produce more high-level information
  • The flexibility of the method – contextual research can be carried out wherever a user operates


There are also certain drawbacks to this kind of work including:

  • Time and resource intensive. Visiting a user and conducting in-depth observations takes more time than many other research methods and as such can be more costly too.
  • It is a qualitative technique. Care must be taken when interpreting data from studies like this – it is often going to be true that you will not be able to afford to make this research “statistically significant” because of the effort required to run such a study. You may need to run other forms of research to determine the impact of issues identified in contextual research on the user population as a whole.

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