Skip to content

Sneak a Peek Behind the Scenes with Contextual Inquiry

Observing research participants in their natural habitat is a powerful method. Here's how to conduct contextual inquiry with a critical eye.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Allison Corr

I'm not going to lie. One of my favorite research methods is gentle stalking. This method is otherwise known as contextual inquiry.

I first conducted a contextual inquiry study at a social media management platform. I had spoken to many users, and we had built out some pretty awesome (if I say so myself) personas.

However, something was bothering me. I love 1x1 research interviews, and I find usability tests so valuable. But something was missing. This is a feeling I would often encounter as a user researcher.

I wanted to know beyond what users told me. I wanted to see them in action and watch them firsthand doing what they reported they were doing.

Jump to

What is contextual inquiry?

There are so many things we can miss when we recount our experiences, and it is no fault of our participants or user research as a field. But as with anything, we can be limited in the scope of information we get from others. We rely on self-reported data, which is still legitimate—but I wanted to see it with my eyes.

This need got stronger until I went to my manager, asking him what we could do. He suggested contextual inquiry.

I couldn't believe there was a method I could use to observe people in their natural environments. That there was a method that could give me a glimpse into what their world was really like.

Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured interview where you learn about a user through a combination of interviews and observations while they work in their environment.

Two main areas differentiate contextual inquiry from other methods:

  1. Contextual inquiry is a combination and fine balance between interviewing and observing
  2. Contextual inquiry happens in context, which is in the user's natural environment

When I first started conducting contextual inquiry, I thought it would be simple (and super cool). It was incredible, and I enjoyed it very much, but it wasn't as simple as I had anticipated.

For my first session, I went to the office of one of our clients. I interviewed this participant more than once, and we had a good relationship. She was great at giving in-depth answers and valuable feedback.

I stepped into the office, following my participant. Before arriving, I explained that I was there to observe her while she worked to understand her workflow better. She pulled a chair for me next to her desk, which had a cluster of other desks and people around.

I started with the standard interview questions but didn't go too in-depth because we had already spoken before, and I was eager to get to the observation.

I finished my questions, and she continued to stare at me. That's when I realized contextual inquiry would be more complicated than I imagined. My participant was used to me leading the sessions, asking her to do specific tasks. With contextual inquiry, she was meant to lead the sessions.

I asked her to "work normally." She gave a puzzled look but eventually started doing her tasks. I interrupted her to ask questions, and she would often stop the task and talk about it rather than show me. She would then wait for the next question rather than returning to her natural workflow.

I bumbled through that session and quite a few more before understanding how to conduct contextual inquiry sessions effectively.

Back to top

How to conduct contextual inquiry

Although this is a challenging approach, it is worth learning and experimenting with. I can't even begin to describe the inspiration I felt after a contextual inquiry session—and how excited I was to share these deep insights with the team.

Before we dive into exactly how to conduct a contextual inquiry, it's worth understanding there are two modes to these sessions:

  1. Active inquiry is when the participant is more involved in answering clarifying questions or talking through the tasks they are doing to provide context.
  2. Passive inquiry is when the researcher only observes the tasks and environment and does not interrupt the participant. All clarifying questions are asked at the end of the study after the researcher finishes the observation.

Both approaches are entirely valid, depending on which one you think would be more helpful for you and your participant. For example, when I first started conducting contextual inquiries, I took the more active approach because I was less comfortable and confident with a passive approach.

As I learned and gained confidence, I switched to a passive approach by having clear roles and expectations at the beginning of the session for myself and my participant.

So, how do you tackle this complex methodology? Let's dive in.

Back to top

Step 1: Introduction and explanation

I rarely tell researchers to deeply explain what a session will be about and how it will go. I want participants to feel like they’re having a comfortable conversation with an acquaintance, not that they are sitting down for a structured line-by-line questioning.

However, with contextual inquiry, we need to be more thoughtful and intentional about explaining how the session works.

Within this part of the session, here are some general steps to take:

✔ Introduce yourself

If I don't know the participant, start by introducing yourself. Ask some basic warm-up questions, like "How is your day?" or "What is your favorite hobby?" or "What is the best thing you've watched or read recently?" This gives me time to build some rapport with the participant.

✔ Set the stage

Think about how you want the session to go. I talk through my expectations and what they can expect from me. For instance, in this situation, I would say, "Today, I will observe you as you work as naturally as possible. I might interrupt for some context or clarifying questions, and when you've answered, you can go back to business as usual. Let me know if it is a bad time to interrupt your work, and we can return to it later. I'm trying to understand how you work day-to-day within the environment, so try to pretend I’m not here!"

✔ Remind them of the commitment

How long will the session take? What can you expect? Ask if they have any questions.

✔ Ask for permission to record

If it makes sense to record the session, now is the time to get consent.

✔ Start with an interview (optional)

Starting with an interview works if you have any questions before you get into the observation role. These questions could be about the role or anything else you need to clarify.

Back to top

Step 2: Observe

This step may look different depending on if you are conducting an active or passive contextual inquiry.

✔ Active contextual inquiry

Observe and take notes on what is happening and what the participant is doing. With this, ensure you aren't trying to interpret what the participant is thinking or doing—report on the facts of what you see.

Interrupt with clarifying questions when you don't understand something that has happened and need more context, or when you want to better understand the participant's mental model about why they are doing something in a certain way.

During this section, I ask questions like, "Why did you do X?" or "What made you try Y?" or "What was going through your mind when you did Z?"

✔ Passive contextual inquiry

Observe and take notes on what is happening and what the participant is doing. With this, ensure you aren't trying to interpret what the participant is thinking or doing—report on the facts of what you see.

Make a list of questions to ask at the end of the session that you need clarification on.

Ask questions at the end of the session. For the follow-up questions, I asked participants to walk me through what they were doing at a specific time to get more context or better understand their mental models. I ask questions like, "When searching for a document, you went into X area. Can you walk me through and explain why you did that?"

Back to top

Keep the Hawthorne Effect in mind

There are quite a few cognitive biases that come up during research, and one in particular stands out when it comes to contextual inquiry: the Hawthorne Effect. Essentially, the Hawthorne Effect is when participants (or people in general) act differently while being observed.

Think of regular things we do every day and how your behavior might change if you knew you were being observed. Would you skip flossing if your dentist was observing your dental hygiene routine? Would you put that extra sugar in your coffee or tea if your doctor watched your morning routine? Our actions can change when people observe us, and they usually change in our favor.

This can be the same in user research. When you watch over a participant's shoulders, they might not get as frustrated or might not use the hacks they typically employ to appear “better” in your eyes (which also plays on social desirability bias).

Much of the Hawthorne Effect is unavoidable when it comes to contextual inquiry, and we need to account for it in our results. In addition, there are a few tactics we can use to mitigate this impact:

  1. Make sure the participant is comfortable and take time to build rapport. This approach leads to higher levels of trust and a higher likelihood a participant will fall into their normal routine.
  2. Remind the participant that results are anonymized and that you won’t share any personal details or information about them in your study.
  3. Make your sessions longer so that participants get to feel more comfortable and you have more of a chance to see their natural environment.
  4. Remind your participants that their honest feedback and normal routines are extremely valuable to you. You can use this information to make significant, positive changes to your product.
  5. Remind participants that you are evaluating the product, not them!
  6. Include passive contextual inquiry in your study as that means you are more of a quiet (and hidden) observer, which can lead to a lessening of this effect.
Back to top

Step 3: Wrap-up

This step is a great time to ask any remaining questions you have and get feedback from the participant. Since a lot of contextual inquiry can leave you without context, this step is where you ensure you didn't make any misinterpretations.

I often summarize the key takeaways I noted to the participant to help assure I didn't make assumptions or misreport anything. For instance, if I observed the participant struggling with selecting and attaching multiple documents to an email, I'd clarify by asking, "When you were attaching those documents to the email, what were you feeling?"

This step took me the longest to perfect because it is a balancing act that comes with lots of practice!

Back to top

Another way to conduct "in-the-wild" research

Contextual inquiry was the second method I learned regarding in-the-wild research.

Before contextual inquiry, I conducted a lot of guerrilla testing. I used this method before I worked in a formal user research role, and while I don't necessarily recommend it because of its shortcomings as a method, it is still an interesting approach.

Guerrilla testing is where you test your ideas super informally with participants, usually by going out and finding them "in the wild."

I first used this approach when researching people's pet adoption process. For this, I went to animal shelters and approached people at the shelter to talk about their experiences.

I conducted guerrilla research again for a beauty company interested in talking to people while they shopped for products. I went to a Sephora and spoke to random people for about five or ten minutes while they were trying on make-up.

With this method, I became one of those people on the street I used to try to avoid.

Guerrilla testing feels like contextual inquiry's less-than-loved cousin, and I highly recommend using contextual inquiry for field research. It is an exciting approach that gives you a sneak peek into your users' worlds that you might never see through more conventional methods.

Overall, testing in-the-wild is an exciting adventure and a fantastic way to get glimpses into your participants' worlds and uncover insights you never even knew existed!

Back to top

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest