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The Essence of Contextual Enquiries

The Essence of Contextual Enquiries
January 04, 2017

“CONTEXTUAL ENQUIRY” - It used to be a vague word for me and may be developers like me. What exactly does it mean? What is it and why do we do it? A lot of questions arose when I heard about it. It required me to go deep into it to understand its essence. “Oh! It is really a great thing.” – That was the obvious reaction I felt and I was overwhelmed with the principles of contextual enquiry and its approach.

Let us have a look at the word – Context. It specifically means “The situation within which something exists or happens”. Now, let us concatenate it with application development. Let’s assume we have to develop an application for hospital management. So, before putting the stepping stone for the application, we need to have the knowledge about all the stakeholders who play pivotal roles in day to day life cycle of hospital environment. We need to know about top management, middle management, group of doctors, and hospital staff as well as patients. We need to understand their routine work, their way of working, and their problems which they might face in their day to day activities. So, the data which we collect in order to get familiar with their nature of work and problem areas is called “Contextual data” and the enquiry which we conduct to fetch out the basics is called “Contextual enquiry”.

Why do we do it?

To know the user

The user is the utmost important factor to keep in mind while developing the sketch of the application. As we know, software application is considered to be the basic need in most of the service sectors. It gives the user ease and the process is executed systematically. When we start thinking about the initiation of software development, the first thing that comes to our mind is the user. We need to know the users who are cohesively related to the system, and their nature. The success of the application depends on the fulfilment of the user’s need. Obviously, we would meet users having unique requirements, culture, working environment, pain areas, problems, and challenges. People from the same work sectors can have multiple views, challenges, or requirements. So, we need to enquire for as much data/scenarios as we can collect. So, it is essential to know about the users who will actually use the application. You would need to meet them to get the data based on actual experiences and not on assumptions.

The work complexity and work models

To design the application structure, we should understand the complete work cycle of every stake holder and should co-relate with their communication channel. Sometimes, it becomes complex to understand their work models. Here comes the contextual enquiry in picture, where we minutely analyse every actors/entity and list down their statements, observations, and break-downs (the problem area). Their set of problem areas becomes our design idea and defines the scope of the application.

To get the actual data

Contextual enquiry techniques help us in analysing things in a diversified manner. We see things and their prospects differently. We go deep into the scenarios, analyse the conditions, and capture the data which is realistic and based on actual facts. We collect these data and run the affinity. We go a step ahead from assumptions. So, eventually we conclude with the data which is realistic, practical, and solution oriented. It plays a pivotal role in defining the scope and designing the application.

How we do it?

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Now, the basic mantra for contextual enquiry can be defined as “Meet the user – Observe the scenarios – Analyse your data”.

You would need to interact with the user to get the actual facts for analysis. You need to meet the user and apply some well formulated method of interaction. The apprentice/master model seems to be the best approach where you watch the work happen. You see a lot of things, such as the work culture which reveals the structure. Many instances and many interviews help revealing the actual picture. You visit the work site and gather the ongoing experience and concrete data. The apprenticeship model lets the user feel their importance and power and they share the actual picture in details.

You communicate with the user and see them interacting with each other. It gives you a concrete idea about the flow of work among the users. You can understand their work practice model and it captures the artefacts. You may want to look into the cultural impact on their working models and their physical working model. So, these diversified viewpoints clarify the work complexity and makes it comprehensive. Now, you observe the data, interpret the facts, and create the design idea based on the summarized facts.


We discussed about the importance of contextual enquiry and the ways of doing it at a high level. It is indeed important to “know” the user before working for them and creating the application, which can make ways to help them in their real working environment. It should be the essential step to define the design solution for addressing the end users and to make the application a success.