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What is contextual inquiry?

Last updated

14 March 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Contextual inquiry is a way to study a group of people in their natural environment. It involves observing study participants and asking relevant questions about their behavior. This method is highly effective for receiving information about social practices, work habits, and product user experience (UX).

By implementing the contextual inquiry method, companies learn more about their customers and gain valuable data to streamline sales, marketing, and product development efforts.

Let's take a closer look at how contextual inquiry works.

Contextual inquiry: Definition

Contextual inquiry involves observing people in their natural environment and asking them questions to learn what they are doing and why.

The four principles of contextual inquiry are:

  • Context: A natural environment for the participant

  • Partnership: A collaboration between the researcher and participant

  • Interpretation: Immediate interpretation of the participant's behavior

  • Focus: Goals and purpose of the inquiry

The researcher and participant work closely during the study to generate as much valuable data as possible.  

How contextual inquiry works

The contextual inquiry method consists of two key elements.

Context

Researchers conduct a study in the person's natural environment. Usually, it's a home or office. The goal is to help the participant relax and go about their business.

The participant uses a product or service while the researcher observes and takes notes. Natural behavior allows the researcher to gain insight into the consumer experience.

Inquiry

The researcher asks participants relevant questions about their behavior:

  • What was your experience with using this product or service? 

  • What issues did you face when using this product or service?

  • How likely are you to continue using this product or service? 

There are two types of inquiry:

  • Active: The researcher asks questions while the participant uses the product or service. They can stop the user at any time to ask additional questions.

  • Passive: The researcher silently observes how a user acts and asks questions once the participant stops their activities.

After the inquiry, the researcher shares their thoughts with the participant, allowing them to add information or comment on the wrong conclusion. 

How to conduct a contextual inquiry

Since 89% of companies compete primarily based on customer experience (CX), learning about this experience can make a valuable contribution to the bottom line. A contextual inquiry helps you study CX from the inside.

Identify the goal

Identifying the goal of your contextual inquiry can help you figure out:

It can also help you determine who can do the job: You can hire a third party to conduct a contextual inquiry or delegate it to your internal team.

For a small experiment, you only need two people: The researcher (the person who asks questions) and the participant (the person who answers questions).

Coordinate the session

Since close collaboration between the researcher and the participant is crucial to the inquiry's success, you must coordinate the session carefully. You need to be attentive to the consumer's needs since you want to arrange the inquiry in a natural environment.

Not all people are willing to participate in contextual inquiries. While it's possible to use incentives, it's best to work with people who are genuinely interested in the experiment and its results.

Ask questions

Make a list of questions in advance, but always be ready to improvise. The researcher must ask simple "newbie" questions about the consumer's experience with the product or service.

If you are adopting a passive role, make a list of questions during the session. Write down all of your observations for further review.

Arrange photos and videos. They can help you conduct an in-depth analysis after the session.

Once the inquiry is over, you can share your thoughts with the participants and receive valuable feedback. Your team can use the gathered data for further analysis.

Examples of contextual inquiry

You can use contextual inquiry for a variety of business needs. Common examples include:

Product testing

Seeing how a participant uses a new product can help you understand its pros, cons, and potential for adjustment. You can also arrange an inquiry for an existing product to find out how well it solves the user's pain points.

Service process

You can arrange an inquiry to find out if users are taking full advantage of your services. SaaS companies can observe if their product helps the client succeed.

UI design

When designing a user interface (UI), arranging an inquiry can help you understand how well it works while identifying the main weak points.

Improving CX

Seeing how customers use your products or services can provide valuable insight into the quality of their experience.

Inspiration

Observing how your customers and clients behave with your product can give you valuable insights into upselling, cross-selling, and new product development opportunities.

Only 4% of unhappy customers complain to the company about their experience. The remaining 96% usually leave without saying a word. During an inquiry session, you can figure out what may be causing significant customer churn and discover opportunities for improvement.

Pros and cons of contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is an efficient research method with certain pros and cons. The most common pros include:

  • Personal interaction with the client or customer

  • High-quality raw data thanks to the natural environment

  • A big volume of data for analytics

  • Immediate feedback from the user

This method also has some cons, which are mainly to do with arrangements and resources.

  • Finding users willing to let strangers into their natural environment can be tricky.

  • People may act differently when they know the researcher is watching them, interfering with the data quality.

  • This method requires significant resources, including time, money, and effort, to visit the user's home or office.

Overall, contextual inquiry can be highly beneficial for gathering robust information for further analysis. However, it requires significant resources for preparation and execution. If the company has the option to arrange such research without breaking the bank, it can reap significant benefits.

Allowing contextual inquiry to work for your business

Contextual inquiry is an effective research method that provides valuable information about your customers, products, and services. Once you gather all the relevant data, the next step is to analyze it.

With the right approach to customer data analytics, you can gain insights to improve your offerings, boost customer experience, and drive successful decision-making.

The bottom line

Contextual inquiry is a method of studying a person’s behavior in their natural environment. It has a variety of applications, including evaluating customer needs, testing new products, understanding the efficiency of services, and much more.

Observing consumers as they use products or services in real-time provides valuable insights. It’s an excellent opportunity to improve business operations and product quality while discovering growth and development possibilities.

FAQs

How do you write a contextual inquiry?

When writing questions for contextual inquiry, you need to refer to your goals. 

  • Do you want to see how customers react to a new product? 

  • Do you want to discover flaws in the product? 

  • Do you want to see how the product drives customer success?

What is the focus in contextual inquiry?

In contextual inquiry, your focus is to plan for the research session based on clearly understanding your goals and the information you want to gather from the participants.

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