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Contextual Inquiry

A Contextual Inquiry is a user interview & observation session conducted wherever a prospective customer will use your product (for example, in their home or office). This allows for more realistic and honest insights than those that might be obtained during an interview in an unfamiliar location such as your usability lab or office, and allows you to observe them engaging in real-world use of the tools and products they use. Consider using this method if you have attempted to set up normal interviewers but subjects frequently complain that they are too busy; this method allows you to interview them while they work.


Schedule Time

  • Time per Session: ~2 Hours

  • Number of Sessions: ~5 to 12

  • Time for Analysis: ~4 hours per Session

Gather Materials


  • Notebook


  • Video camera

  • Camera

  • Audio recorder


  1. At the start of your observation, establish trust with your participant. Promise confidentiality and explain what you will be observing. Start recording your observations if you are permitted to.

  2. As your subject tackles any task, watch for moments when they use your product (or could use it).

  3. Establish a master/apprentice relationship by asking your subject to teach you the reasons for their decisions and processes.

  4. Throughout the day, ask questions when you are confused or uncertain, or when an answer may be relevant to the focus of your inquiry. Question sparingly, however, to keep your subject’s behavior natural.

  5. Take notes whenever you see pain points your product could alleviate, moments where your product is or is not used, and times when productivity changes.

  6. At the end of your session, summarize your observations to the participant.


Try these tips

  • Schedule sessions for relevant times of day. For example, if your app will help parents with their children’s bedtime routines, schedule your observation session for the after dinner hours.

  • Recording how your participant interacts with their customers, co-workers, or family members is important, but get permission before taking video, photos, or audio of anyone.

  • If you cannot get permission to record an inquiry, bring a second interviewer to help with note-taking.

  • Participants are put into more of an active, leading role during a Contextual Inquiry than in typical interviews. Therefore, a participant may sometimes get “stuck,” waiting for a cue or question. You may need to urge them to continue working, reminding them that you are only there to observe.

Next Steps

Creating an Affinity Diagram of your observations is the quickest way to analyze the data and catch patterns. Based on these Diagrams, you can easily construct Personas that are based on real people and real common patterns among representatives from your user base.

Function Allocation based on what you observed to be natural or difficult for your participant can help you determine what your product should do for the user, and what the user can and should do themselves. This information can then be handed off to your product design team so your product can be designed or iterated as necessary.

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