Creative Director of ArtVersion, a Chicago design consultancy. We craft ideal user experiences for the world’s most innovative companies.
Contextual inquiries have long been a highly regarded approach to user research analysis across different industries. According to an Adobe article, contextual inquiries go a step beyond user interviews and “involves observing people in their natural context and habitat while asking them questions to fill in the gaps of your observation.”
As businesses continue to attain better assessments of their users and target audiences, new modes of data-collecting and research practices continue to grow. However, even with the expansion of technologies and tools that allow a more passive form of user research, contextual inquiries remain an asset for data collection for digital design interfaces, products, services and more.
Conducting in-person contextual inquiries takes time to plan and execute, thus knowing how to properly strategize for a contextual interview can save you time from trial and error. A smooth session can be achieved with preparation, flexibility and proper coordination.
Specificity Is Key
Best practice to adopt before beginning an inquiry session is attaining clarity on your research goals in order to be able to develop actionable changes and improvements. This phase of the process, known as the focus area of an inquiry, requires forming an exploration within a design by leveraging firsthand feedback and observations from your users for data and research evaluation. Therefore, specificity within your session should be clear and fully formed.
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Avoiding generality in your research practices and questions will aid in streamlined data collecting. Asking the right specific questions that align with your research purpose will also place your session on the right trajectory. To do this, collaborate with your team internally to uncover what it is exactly you wish to learn about your users and the ways in which they interact with your product, service and user interface.
Encourage Smaller Group Sessions
One of the many benefits of contextual inquiries is the opportunity to interact with your users in the environment in which they utilize an interface or product. And within that regard, every user has their own thought process on how to navigate an interface, their own feedback on different areas of a design or even pain points they may have encountered in their experience. Moreover, observers need to assess as much feedback as possible within the session’s time frame, and this can be best achieved by conducting research sessions in small groups and, if possible, on an individual observer-participant level.
Smaller group sessions not only allow every participant to speak their opinion or offer their thought process, but it also helps avoid “group thinking” in which one participant speaks and the rest simply agree without offering their own input—creating a lack of diversity within the data. This makes it much more difficult to analyze trends within the refinement phase after the session is complete.
Adopt An Ethnographic Approach
Contextual inquiries truly embrace an anthropological take on user analysis and research. Observers—whether digital developers or a marketing team—can understand their audience with an anthropological and ethnographic lens. It is important to remind your users to utilize an interface or product as they would normally, and not how they expect the observer to want them to use it.
Another great practice is to bring other team members to observe participants as they navigate their area of expertise. A team member that is best fit to analyze UX practices, for example, and another for UI, can truly propel your research findings with the integral perspective of team members in each specific area.
Observing the organic usage of the interface safeguards data that is not tampered with or affected by observer influence. For many users, it may feel out of the ordinary to have outside individuals observe their interactions. However, reestablishing your purpose by reminding your users that you are there to learn from them, as opposed to the other way around, can offer a greater sense of ease.
Questions that are posed to your participants as they navigate an interface should be redolent to neutral phrasing. The is a difference between “Can you walk me through how you navigate this task?” and “Why did you perform a task that way?” A neutral approach allows users to feel much more comfortable within the session without feeling as though they performed a task incorrectly. Streamlining your phrasing to remove negative nuances and replacing it with keywords that suggest a much more neutral approach can engage participation without friction.
Consider A Conversational Style
A fundamental principle for a user-centric approach to design involves an understanding of your user and giving them precedence to their experience. Contextual interviews are a form of human-centric methodologies because developers are navigating practices to better comprehend their users to place their interests at the forefront of design.
Thus, this form of data-driven design is in line with enriching human emotions. Yet, to truly allow for a strategy that is indicative of human-centric approaches, it is best to consider a session that is flexible and adopts a conversational approach. This phase of a contextual session is known as the partnership stage, in which establishing a connection with your participants sets the tone for the overall inquiry session.
A much more flexible and conversational approach to these inquiries can not only allow your participants to feel much more comfortable and willing to share their honest thoughts, but it allows for new insights. Often, these procedures can venture down a trajectory in which new insights and information are uncovered that may not have been originally part of your research checklist—yet can still be informative for developers to be informed upon. Structuring and proper planning are always important, but an organic course of information can help provide developers and designers with pivotal insights.
Contextual inquiries continue to be a central form of research and data collecting. And although there are myriad tools that allow for user testing, contextual interviews are paramount for firsthand analysis and connection.
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Author: Goran Paun, Forbes Councils Member