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Contextual Enquiry, Understanding users with Observation and enquiry

Contextual Enquiry, Understanding users with Observation and enquiry
July 31, 2017

Designers are now becoming more motivated to think strategically and holistically before starting any design. Designers are now looking to be a part of the initial research to get more clarity and information about target users and product, so that they can provide appropriate design solutions to the customers.

Design is not just restricted to colors, typography, layout design, graphics etc. It has in fact, moved beyond this. User Experience is increasingly facilitating Visual Designers in conceptualizing design projects and is reflecting through tools, methods, and practices.

Contextual Inquiry has influenced me a lot to think about design from the direct user’s perspective and provide better design solutions. The key difference between contextual inquiry and other research methods is that it’s not just research, interview, or observation; it includes accumulating information about the Customer/User work practices by observing and talking about it while they work. The information gathered leads to desirable and accessible design solutions. 

Gathering Information from different contexts 

Gathering Information

Location: In order to understand the context, the interview should be conducted at the user’s Location/Work Place. The researcher should observe the user while performing tasks and try to perform the task with the user and discuss the artifacts they develop or use. The researcher should describe the exact location:- it can be inside or outside, any safety issue, environment (temperature, humidity etc.), light, speed of action, time (frequency of task) etc.

People: We should identify the potential participants. The various stakeholders, for example, if we target a grocery shop: consumers, shopkeeper, salesmen, suppliers etc. would be the stakeholders. We should watch and observe the real activities in their real context like: Who is nearby? Who else used the product? Who has an important relationship with the user? What problem did they face, who is the owner, subordinates, and family members etc.

Culture & Value: It’s about the description of the prevailing culture, what are the beliefs of the users? What are the working methods? What are the customs? What style of communication prevails? What are the decision making processes? Why does this culture prevail? What does the user like, dislike, hate, love, tolerate, desire? Etc.

While interviewing the users, we should share our interpretations and insights with them, try to understand the function of each tasks, and identify the Key observation, User statement, Breakdowns, insights, Design Ideas etc. 

Applying Contextual Enquiry

Contextual Inquiry is an extensive process that we can apply in different contexts. It is appropriate whenever we need to develop or communicate an understanding of the users. It can be used for product research and user understanding, for example, to understand how the users use the product or complete their tasks, how they used their mobile phone, how they do online shopping through net banking/credit card etc. It should be conducted at the initial level of product development to understand user needs and desires. The analytical behavior of contextual inquiry helps to develop the right products, systems, or services. This is helpful in generating ideas for new features and/or new products.


Understanding Contextual Inquiry is observing Users in all contexts and applying the concept leads to simplifying the design solutions. A company’s success largely depends on the ease provided to the users with simplifying their design of systems, product, and user interfaces. With justifying facts and figures, both the designer and the clients get benefitted through contextual inquiry. Reducing the complex nature of a design through the system provides an insight to the best solution.