User experience or UX is the process of designing a product for the user. The designed product (website or application) must be useful for the user and easy to use so that it ultimately brings him a pleasant experience.

User experience research is one of the most important steps in UX design. The data obtained from UX research gives the designer a very good view so that he can have the best design with data-informed design.

Although UX research is considered one of the most important steps in UX design, many UX designers ignore this step.

We can’t want to design a product for the user but ignore the user’s research and opinions, which are the guiding lights of our work.

In this article, we discuss one of the most common, effective, and very important methods in UX research, that is, contextual inquiry.

What is Contextual Inquiry in UX?

Contextual inquiry is one of the qualitative research methods. Usually, this observation and interview is done in a small community of the target community. The purpose of this research method is to achieve a deep understanding of user behavior.

Contextual Inquiries are conducted in an environment where all users normally use the product. Perhaps, according to many, Contextual Inquiry is the same as the interview method. But these two methods are not the same at all. In the following, we will examine the difference between these two methods. This environment may be a home, workplace, or anywhere else. The researcher’s goal in using this research method is to put the user under the microscope while working with the product to understand how users work with the product and what behaviors they show.

Contextual Inquiry is one of the qualitative research methods in which participants are asked to work with that product. This research method gives the designer a good view of the product and its value for the user.

Why do we use Contextual Inquiry in UX?

In the product design process, one of the important steps in the early stages of design is to discover the specific features of the product from the user’s point of view. This information is very important and vital in choosing design features and UX content strategy or UX writing.

Many times, the designer uses certain elements in the design that he thinks are appropriate. But when the user uses that product, he doesn’t pay attention to that element, or for any reason it becomes clear that it should be changed. This issue is especially useful in situations where there is a root problem in the design that we seek to identify.

As a result, contextual inquiry can show designers rich information and hidden layers of design.

The difference between the Contextual Inquiry method and the interview method

Note that the Contextual Inquiry method is different from the interview. Because in this method, the UX designer observes the natural behavior of the user. Usually, in the interview, the answers given by the users to the interviewer may not be accurate and clear.

But in this method, because the user works with the product, the result is more accurate and can provide better information to the researcher. In this method, the researcher gets a very good view of the user’s understanding of the product.

The Principles of Contextual Inquiry

Contextual Inquiry has 4 basic principles:

1. Research field

The first basic principle in contextual inquiry is to conduct research in the right environment. The best environment to conduct Contextual Inquiry is the environment in which the product is intended to be used. This environment may be home, workplace, school, university, and in short, any place where the user uses the product.

If it is difficult for the researcher to physically access the user in these environments, it is possible to get help from online meetings. In any case, the interviewer must be able to monitor all the actions of the user and the tools he uses.

2. Research topic

Before starting the Contextual Inquiry, the interviewer should decide which part of the product design to focus on in this research. What conclusions do you expect from this research?

When we know what we are looking for in research, we can ask more targeted questions of the user and draw more accurate conclusions from the experiment. In addition, by focusing on a specific topic, testing time is also saved.

3. Interpretation and analysis

An important part of Contextual Inquiry is related to the interpretation and analysis of research results. In this respect, Contextual Inquiry is different from the observation method. In the observation method, the researcher concludes without talking to the users. While in the Contextual Inquiry method, the researcher can have a more complete conclusion by discussing with the participants.

4. Participation

All Contextual Inquiry is based on participation: participation between the interviewer and the interviewee. Usually, the participation between the interviewer and the participant is done in two ways:

  • Active observation

Active observation is the most common method of participation in Contextual Inquiry. In this method, the participant talks about all the actions he takes. As if he wants to teach the interviewer. In this way, the interviewer can ask the participant many questions during the interview.

  • passive observation

In this method, the participant performs his actions as if the interviewer is not there at all. The interviewer silently observes the participant’s behavior and does not interrupt his work in any way. Rather, he asks all his questions to the participant at the end of the work.

Basic research steps

First of all, to choose the participant or group of participants, try to get help from people who have sufficient knowledge of the product field. Then use the following steps in session management:

1. Introduction

First, the conditions of the meeting should be such that the participant feels comfortable. Also, at the beginning of the meeting, you should explain what the purpose of this interview is. If you want to videotape or record the participant’s voice during the meeting, be sure to get his permission first.

2. Preparation

After the introduction and general explanations about the topic of the interview, explain the process and steps of the research to the participant. Tell the user that you are monitoring all his actions and sometimes you may ask him to hold his hand to answer your questions.

3. Start the interview

Start the interview phase. Whenever you don’t understand something, ask the user open-ended questions to explain in detail why they took a certain action.

Be careful that you should not show any specific reaction to the user’s behavior. Because your reaction can affect the future behavior of the user and this issue will affect the result of the research. You can write down all your comments to discuss with the user at the end of the session.

4. Conclusion

In the last step, review the points you wrote down and discuss your impressions of the meeting with the user so that if you misunderstood something, the matter can be clarified through conversation.

These meetings may last from one hour to several days depending on the size of the project.

Common Questions in Contextual Inquiry

Most of the questions asked in this research are based on the interviewer’s observations of the participant’s behavior. For this reason, the most common questions in this research are the following:

  • What was your reason for doing that?
  • What made you do this?

However, other important questions may be used in Contextual Inquiry:

  • What attracted you to this product?
  • What problems did you encounter while working with the product?
  • What times do you use this product?
  • Do you prefer to use this product for personal use or professional use?
  • Do you use this product individually or in groups?
  • Which one do you prefer between a and b?
  • What makes you choose this product over the competition?

Some examples of Contextual Inquiry applications

Product testing

Contextual Inquiry can be used to test a new product or even redesign an old product. Contextual Inquiry gives the researcher the view that:

  • How does the user use the product?
  • What parts do you enjoy the most?
  • What parts are unnecessary from the user’s point of view?
  • What parts should be added to the product?

For example, a toy brand that has produced a new educational product for preschool children can use the method to understand whether the product is suitable for preschool children or not and how children interact with this product and to check the effectiveness of teaching children with this product. Use contextual research. In such a way that the researcher observes the behavior of the product users who are preschool children in a class while the class teacher helps the children.

Optimizing the online sales route

Contextual Inquiry is also used to improve the company’s sales process. In this situation, the interviewer examines the user’s online shopping process on the site or application to design the most effective and optimal online shopping route for the user.

For example, to improve the online ordering process on its website, an online clothing store can take help from observing the user’s behavior when placing an online order with their device, adding a product to the shopping cart, completing an online order, and improving this section.

User Interface Design (UI)

Another use of Contextual Inquiry is in user interface design. Suppose a mobile phone brand has designed a new model of smartphone. The interviewer presents a preliminary version of the product to the participant and asks him to perform actions such as downloading a file, sending an email, or connecting to another device with Bluetooth, and asks questions about the user’s experience of using this product and its strengths and weaknesses. Ask about its weakness.

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