Contextual Inquiry: A Blend of Interview & Observation

Uncover crucial details that should be included in verbal explanations.

Dzaky Waly
5 min readFeb 1, 2024

Sometimes we can’t fully explain an action when asked how to do it. We skipped common steps when we answered it. We assume the other party understands these common steps or forgot to mention them. This also happens when we’re doing user interviews. Sometimes users can’t fully explain how they do certain actions. We need to observe how user performed their task to understand how they’re doing it.

A Grab driver that bring food for completing delivery order request
Photo by Grab on Unsplash

For example, when researching food delivery apps with a driver we may ask:

“How did you accept a food delivery request?”

Interviewee may answer

“Well, I received a notification, tap the notification and tap the big blue button to accept the order.”

It is the answer we need, but we miss some details like:

  • They increase the screen brightness because they’re using it outside.
  • They check the travel distance and compare it with the payment they received.

Combining user interviews and observation could cover up some details that we miss. This method is called Contextual Inquiry.

What is contextual inquiry?

Well as the name implies, it is an inquiry with context. A method where we interview our users while observing them using the product. This method is based on 4 principles:

  • Context:
    The research is done in a natural setting where the product will be used—for example, restaurant cashiers, hospitals, and more. The researcher will observe, take notes & inquire with the participant.
  • Partnership:
    The researcher will collaborate with participants to understand their actions. There will be many questions or discussions with participants. To ensure smooth and effective communication, we need to build rapport with participants.
  • Interpretation:
    The researcher will interpret what the user does when doing the given task and why they did that. The user could then be questioned to determine whether our interpretation is accurate. To verify that the data that we gather are valid, mutual interpretation must be obtained.
  • Focus:
    The researcher needs to create clear and focused questions. Researchers also need to ensure that what users do is within our project scope. Make a research plan so we can gather the information that we need.

There are two types of contextual inquiry

  • Active → Where the participant talks while doing their task as if educating the researcher. The researcher can interrupt the process to ask or confirm their interpretation.
  • Passive → The participant will perform their task as if no observer/researcher is present on the spot. The researcher will silently observe the participants when doing their tasks and doesn’t interrupt their process. The inquiry will be given after the task is complete.
Participant doing research task and researcher take notes on what participant did.
Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

Running contextual inquiry

When running a contextual inquiry, we could divide it into 4 sessions:

  1. Introduction:
    In the first session, we try to build a rapport with participants and make them comfortable with us. Tell participants what we expect in this study & let them know that they could correct our interpretation. Begin to talk about the subject of the research and let them tell their opinion about it. Even though recollection is not always accurate, we could validate it later on in contextual interview sessions. Don’t forget to discuss confidentiality and get approval for any recording or photos we may be doing.
  2. Transition:
    Make a clear explanation about what will happen during the rest of the sessions.
    Let them know that:
    - The researcher will observe when participant doing their task
    - They should expect interruption whenever there are some interesting things to discuss
    - If interruption timing is off, they should communicate it to the researcher & continue their task until a better stop point.
  3. Contextual Interview:
    In this session, we will go through Observation and discussions with the participant. Initiate discussion when there are things that we couldn’t understand or need validation from participants.
    Through this phase, be aware of external resources being used by participants. Ask about standard and uncommon steps (if any) in their process and the reason behind them.
  4. Wrap-Up:
    To wrap up, review our notes and explain your interpretation to the participant. Participants also have a chance to give final clarification and correct our interpretation

Several tips and best practices for running a contextual inquiry

  • Take notes: Jot down comments and our interpretation of participant behavior during the research study. We could also take notes on questions that we wanted to ask but didn’t have the time yet. These notes could be our data that later can be analyzed using the Affinity Diagram. Don’t let taking notes disturb your observation.
  • Documentation: This could help other researchers who weren’t present to understand the situation. With video recording, they could observe participant behavior. This also could cover something that perhaps we missed while taking notes. Always receive approval from participants for any documentation.
  • Prepare questions: Preparing questions beforehand will help us guide or structure our session. It will also help the study to be consistent and focused.
  • Switch between Active-Passive inquiry: Sometimes the reason why our users behave the way they behave will be uncovered at a later stage. So we didn’t have to always observe and then ask a question, but we could also wait until later to ask our questions.

Key Takeaways

  • There are limitations on verbal explanations for understanding user actions. Observing users alongside interviews could uncover crucial details that are often missed in verbal explanations.
  • Contextual inquiry is based on 4 principles. The research is done in user-natural settings (Context). Ensure smooth and effective communication by building a rapport with participants (Partnerships). Interpret user actions and ask participants to validate our interpretation (Interpretation). Plan our research by creating clear and focused questions (Focused).
  • Contextual inquiry is a suitable research method for complex products, especially context-dependent products. Otherwise, it is overkill for simple products or context-independent products.
  • There are 4 sessions when running contextual inquiry. Introduction where we build rapport with participants. Transition where we explain what to expect in this research to participants. Contextual Interview session where we observe and interview our user. Wrap up where we validate our notes or interpretation to participants.



Dzaky Waly

Digital Product Designer | Geek | Writes what comes out of my mind on my spare time |