What Is Contextual Inquiry?

Contextual inquiry is a deep-thinking interview method used to profoundly understand the context of use, where researchers ask users a set of standard questions and then observe and ask questions while participants work in their own environments.

Carefully observing people in the settings where they live, work, learn, or play is the basis of contextual inquiry. Using this method, Blink researchers combine observations of real people engaging in topics of interest with periodic questions to better understand their specific actions, behaviors, and thoughts. Essentially, contextual interviews focus on how people accomplish things in their own way.

Blink’s aim in contextual interviews is to address the design or research questions at hand by observing and gathering information from people without interfering in their routines or tasks. We walk away from each study session armed with a detailed view of how study participants operate. Later, we synthesize raw data from these interviews to craft insights and opportunities for our clients.

Blending traditional interviewing and ethnography, contextual interviews reveal ways that people actually use digital products and services; results can be surprising and full of workarounds. Researchers can also use this method to explore how people could use a new digital product that does not currently exist. In this case, contextual interviews produce detailed data about workflows and work practices needed to inform product design and engineering.

What Is a Contextual Inquiry Interview?

Contextual interviews have a few different styles. Knowing how to conduct an interview will depend on your goals and what questions you're trying to answer.

A key part of contextual interviews is to do them in an environment where someone would use the product. If you're selling a cooking product, you want to see how people use it in their kitchens. While they're using the product, we might ask questions for more information as we go.

In addition to contextual inquiry interviews, task analyses and shop-along retail experience studies are effective ways to gain insight into user behavior.

What Is Task Analysis?

Task analysis, an occasional output of contextual inquiries, involves deconstructing tasks of interest into more simple, discrete components. Blink researchers define tasks and make lists of the steps involved to achieve task goals. Task analysis helps identify critical elements of a task, potential usability problems, and aspects of a user interface that may have been overlooked.

For example, let's take a look at the task of logging into a desktop application. The steps involved might look something like this.

1. Click on the desktop icon.

2. Click the "Log in" button after the program launches.

3. Click on the username text entry field.

4. Type in username.

5. Click on the password text entry field.

6. Type in the password.

7. Click "Log in.

It might seem pretty straightforward, but you can use it to identify small tasks that can be improved. Task analysis can also inform contextual interviews, as you find that users might take different approaches to get to the end result.

If, during interviews, you find that the time it takes to log in is frustrating for users, you might look into eliminating five of the above steps by offering a "Remember Me" function, which would significantly speed up the process.

What Are Shop-Along or Retail Experience Studies?

Shop-along or retail experience studies combine aspects of contextual inquiry with marketing research techniques. In these studies, Blink researchers seek to understand how consumers make decisions about their technology and other product purchases. We conduct pre-shopping interviews to understand shopping goals, “shadow” shoppers who have opted into the study to observe behaviors, and then conduct post-purchase interviews to ask participants to reflect on key decision points.

Studying someone while they shop can offer significant insights into their process and how they arrive at a purchase decision. People don't always remember everything they do or think about when they shop, so going with them can be more accurate and informative than types of interview styles that question the shopper after the fact.

Contextual Inquiry With Blink

Blink researchers can use any combination of the types of interview styles mentioned to find more information about how your customers use a product. They know how to conduct an interview with the utmost concern for improving the customer experience. To learn more, get in touch with us today.

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Blink researchers can use any combination of the types of interview styles mentioned to find more information about how your customers use a product. Contact Blink today.

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