Looking for advice for conducting contextual inquiries as a beginner



Hey everyone,

I’m taking David Travis’s The Ultimate Guide to Usability and UX course on Udemy. I just finished the section on Contextual Inquiries. I understand it in theory, and I understand why it’s so important and the steps to go about conducting it in a team environment with an actual product.

The thing is, I’m learning UX on my own. In December I plan on attending General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive course, but right now, I’m a lone wolf.

Contextual inquiries sound intimidating (I’m a slow note taker, I have a hard time being concise, I imagine that the transcription process afterwards takes forever, I don’t have the best memory, and I am a perfectionist which makes me super detail oriented and thus slower.) And because of this, I would like to get in some practice right now. Learning about it and learning by doing it are two completely different things.

As I am on my own though, I’m trying to figure out how I’d overcome the following issues:

  • I don’t have a product to have them use. I’m not a programmer, nor am I a visual designer – at the moment. The only way I can think of overcoming this is to give the participant a product which I haven’t made that I already use – like my Kindle Paperwhite.

  • Where do I get participants? I can think of a few, like my parents, one of my friends, and my girlfriend, but beyond that, I’m not sure where to turn. Additionally, I have learned that it is best to conduct contextual inquiries with people who already use the product (that way they can act as the expert, and you the apprentice, and tell you how they use the product). None of the people I just listed have ever used a Kindle. What if they genuinely don’t know how to use the product? If I tell them, I’m no longer the apprentice.

  • Once I get the data, I imagine that I would go back, transcribe my notes and audio/visual recordings, and try my best to summarize each thing onto a sticky note. From there I would group them and put them on a board, creating a user journey map. But then what? I’m not in a team and so there is no one to share this information with. Also, there are no iterations that I can make to this already existing product.

Thanks, and I hope this post wasn’t too long!

Starting my first UX Research/Design project and in need of some advice!

Hi @geoffparker1988
To simplify Contextual inquiry - it is just having a conversation about something and mostly ‘observing’ people interacting with a product/service.

To begin with start with simple things - even a pen, notebook, coffee mug, microwave, etc. Does not have to be digital/super cool.

It depends on the purpose. Asking friends/family is an easy option but if they are not the intended audience then don’t do it. If all you want is practise, then pick products that your family uses and just practise.

Just make notes each time and over time you will be able to observe patterns - good and bad. Read a lot of blogs and publish your findings too. Over time, quantity yields quality :slight_smile:


Hi there Geoff
So glad that you discovered the contextual enquiry technique - it’s one of my absolutely favourite user research techniques :slight_smile:
Contextual enquiries do seem intimidating at first, but I love your approach of getting in some practice.

I don’t have a product to have them use.

That’s ok. Contextual enquiry is an observational technique. It’s not tied down to a product. For example, some of my ex-teammates were working with a large supermarket chain here in Australia. Before they redesigned the online shopping experience, they spent a few weeks following people from home to and around the supermarket, and then home again, to observe the shopping experience. They learned about how different the shopping experiences were for families with young kids, versus no kids and interesting behavioural things such as quick/top up shops versus the big weekly shop.

Where do I get participants?

I suggest picking an experience that is fairly universal so you can easily get participants. Maybe something like shopping for a present, or borrowing a book from the library etc. That way you can use family and friends for your practise sessions. This way you’re not dealing with the issues of them not knowing how to use a product.

But then what?
If you’re doing this in a non-practise way, then you’ll ideally be synthesising your research into interesting insights. You could perhaps put this into a journey map or something else to communicate your findings.

Some other things to think about:

  • Rather than a contextual enquiry, have you considered concentrating on getting your interviewing techniques down pat? Contextual enquiries may also include some form of interviews at some points, but interviews are such a great technique for exploring the WHY behind people’s interactions with a service/brand/product. I love using interviews, particularly at the discovery stage of a service/product development. You get to explore the context around the use of the product/service.
  • In terms of taking notes…there are a few apps that allow you to record the audio of your session and send it off to be transcribed (e.g. rev.com). It costs money but if you’re doing this in a professional setting, it’s worth factoring in this cost as it saves you time and allows you to spend the time focussed on facilitating the session and then post session, combing through the transcriptions to codify and make meaning of the research.

Hope this helps. I’ve been doing research in various forms over the past 15 years and love it so much! :slight_smile:


@ruth and @Sridhar,

Thank you both so much! This was very helpful information and it makes the idea of contextual research less intimidating and more digestible.

I did a bit more learning about contextual inquiries. As I understand it, they are about observing someone perform in a situation… a situation in which you feel that you could improve their performance. For example, if I wanted to make a product that made the process of studying for an exam easier, I would observe all kinds of students as they naturally study for an exam. I’d take notes on the process that they go through, the difficulties that they have, and the things that they find easy. I’d ask some supplementary questions about their process as well.

And so it makes sense that I wouldn’t have a product at this stage. I’m pretty sure the product part comes in at the usability testing stage.

Again, thank you so much! I have started a project that requires contextual inquiry that I am a bit stumped on. However, for that I’ll create a separate topic.