The Expert's Guide to Contextual Inquiry Interviews

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Swetha Amaresan
Swetha Amaresan



Most consumers are used to the typical style of interviews. They get to sit in a chair, slightly zoned out, while you probe them with questions about their experiences. All they have to do, simply, is just give you accurate answers while you scribble down their responses word-for-word.

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This style, while still informative, puts your consumers in a very passive role. This can be completely fine, considering what the point of the interviews is. However, often times, consumers don't actually know how to articulate responses about their needs in a product or service. They may not have a full grasp on the technology or completely comprehend the "why" behind their purchasing decisions.

Thus, this style of interviews can be lacking in producing effective and actionable insights. This is where contextual inquiry interviews come in.

This differs from a typical interview because you can observe participants' natural, habitual activities that they might overlook when describing their usage in a normal, verbal interview. In addition, the interviewer can confirm their understanding of the tasks occurring with the participants, who can agree, disagree, or provide greater explanations. Thus, contextual inquiry is a great option if your company is struggling to understand the root problem for which your product or service is a solution.

There are four main principles of contextual inquiries:

1. Context

Naturally, the first principle is context. It's essential that a contextual inquiry occurs in the context of use. This means the interview must travel to the participant's work, home, school or other location in which they habitually use the product or service. If reaching the location is an issue, contextual inquiries can also occur over video chat in order to still observe the participant in their environment.

The interviewer must also pay attention to all tasks done and artifacts used in addition to the product or service at hand. In order to fully understand the situation, interviewers must take into consideration everything a participant does during the process of using the product or service.

2. Focus

Before going into a contextual inquiry, the interviewer should decide on a focus for the interview. What conclusions are your company trying to come to? Having a focus is similar to having a research question in an experiment. It will keep all the participant's activities honed in on only what you need to observe.

A good focus says exactly what you want to accomplish with the interview and how you plan on accomplishing it. This is also to save you time; once you've learned all you need to learn about the focus, you can feel free to end the interview. However, it's okay to let the interview be loose in structure and in the hands of the customer. Be open to the interview taking you down an unexpected, yet rewarding, path.

3. Interpretation

As mentioned above, an important part of contextual inquiries is mutual interpretation. That is why these differ from natural observations; in those situations, the researchers are left to come to their own conclusions without ever consulting the observed participants. But, in contextual inquiries, interviewers have the opportunity to speak with their subjects and gain greater meaning.

Rather than just making implications, an interviewer must review their learnings with the participant. This gives the participant a chance to confirm whether your observations are accurate or not. Their clarifications can either validate, expand on, or disprove your findings, making for a more accurate interview.

4. Partnership

The entirety of a contextual inquiry is based on collaboration between the interviewer and participant. There are two models that can be used to make for a more meaningful partnership:

Active Observation

This is the most commonly used model in contextual inquiries. This occurs when the participant talks through all the tasks they are performing as if educating the interviewer on their process. The interviewer has the opportunity to interrupt the participant in the middle of tasks to ask questions.

Passive Observation

In this model, the participant performs their tasks as if the interviewer is not present. The interviewer silently observes the participant and does not interrupt their tasks. Rather, they ask all their questions at the completion of the observation.

Keeping these principles in mind, read on for some examples of when you would use contextual inquiry interviews.

Contextual Inquiry Examples

1. Testing a Product

Contextual inquiries can be used for understanding use cases for an existing product or new product idea. Observing a participant navigating a product can help an interviewer understand what aspects trip them up, what they enjoy, what is unnecessary, and what they might use it for.

A children's toy brand is considering creating a new educational technology product for preschool-age children. Using a contextual inquiry, an interviewer can observe a classroom full of children using the product, while being guided by their teacher. The interviewer can also observe some children using the product at home with their families. These interviews can help the interviewer understand whether or not the product is age-appropriate, engaging, and actually educating children as promised.

2. Optimizing Ecommerce

Contextual inquiries can also be used to find ways to improve the shopping process for a company. Interviewers can observe how participants navigate an online ordering process to discover ways to make it more efficient.

An ecommerce clothing brand wants to improve their online ordering process. An interviewer can observe customers surfing the website on their respective devices, adding products to their carts, and completing the order process. The interviewer can then speak with the customers to understand the ways to make the experience easier and faster, such as by allowing customers to save their credit card information for future purchases.

3. Designing a User Interface

Another great use for contextual inquiry interviews is to better design user interfaces. It can be difficult to get a sense of the best possible user interface by simply asking participants questions about what they like to see. Watching them succeed and stumble through different interfaces can be a better gauge.

A technology company is designing a new smartphone model. An interviewer can pass out a prototype to a participant and assign them some tasks to complete, such as downloading an emailed file or connecting a Bluetooth device to the smartphone. The interviewer can then ask questions about their experience with the interface and observe if certain apps are difficult to locate or tasks require too many steps.

4. Enhancing Customer Experience

Contextual inquiries can also be used to improve or modify a customer's experience with your brand, typically at the location site. Following a customer through their journey can give you important insights that would otherwise be difficult to understand.

A bookstore cafe brand is trying to create a more welcoming environment, as most of their customers currently only come to shop and not to sit at the cafe. An interviewer can invite participants to the location and observe their experience with the location. Throughout, the interviewer can ask them questions. Participants will have a better grasp of their emotions and habits while they're actually performing them at the bookstore cafe.

5. Improving Employee Workflow

Contextual inquiries don't have to be solely customer-facing. In fact, one of the most beneficial uses of this interview style is assessing employee workflow. Interviewers can review an internal process at your business and ask employees what can be done to improve productivity. 

For example, if your customer support team is struggling to meet customer demand, you can conduct a contextual inquiry to see where you can improve their workflow. Interviewers can observe your call center and survey agents about the roadblocks they face during their shifts. This can provide you valuable insight when making important business decisions, like whether or not to invest in customer service tools

6. Anticipating Customer Behavior

Sometimes, business leaders struggle to make a decision because they don't know how customers will react to the change they're proposing. This is the perfect time to use contextual inquiry as it can help organizations anticipate customer behavior. You can analyze how customers are currently using your product or service, and ask them how that may change if you executed the action you're considering. 

Let's say you manage an app that connects people who are looking to play recreational basketball. While your product is loved by your users, you're considering expanding it to include soccer as well, but you don't know how to appeal to this new target audience. To find out, you can go to soccer fields to see how players are meeting and connecting with each other. This can give you plenty of information to determine how your marketing team should position your app's new update. 

7. Identify Unanticipated Use Cases

Did you know that text messaging was never intended to be a popular cell phone feature? Its original purpose was to give carriers a less-intrusive way to notify customers about problems with their networks. Eventually, people started using this feature to quickly communicate with their peers, and then cell carriers capitalized on the financial opportunity. Now, texting a staple that's included in almost every cell phone plan. 

This is a great example of how contextual inquiry highlighted an unanticipated use case for a product or service. By analyzing the different ways that customers were using cell phones, carriers uncovered a new feature to monetize. 

8. Recognizing Product Flaws

Some unanticipated product use cases can end up costing your business. Customers are always looking to get the most from their purchase and it's not uncommon for them to find aspects that they can exploit. While you certainly want to encourage most uses of your product, sometimes you need to make adjustments so you don't end up losing money. 

Take Netflix, for example. The streaming giant found that it was losing over $100 million each month because users were sharing their passwords and accounts. To salvage this, it added product limitations so users could only create a certain number of accounts. Additionally, Netflix added a clause in its terms and conditions that states it can terminate or freeze an account if it finds that the customer has been sharing passwords.

Now that you have an idea of the situations in which you might use contextual inquiry interviews, you can use some of the following questions as a diving point for your next interview.

Contextual Inquiry Questions

Many of the questions you ask may be in response to something you observe a participant do. So, often, the questions may be "Why did you do that?" or "What made you perform that task?" It's great to be present and ask reactive questions, but you'll also want to prepare a list of proactive questions that can typically be applied to any contextual inquiry.

1. "What did you enjoy about this product/service/experience?"

Naturally, you want to know what people already like about your brand. These are the aspects that should remain steady amid any improvements or changes.

2. "What issues did you face?"

On the flip side, you want to know where they were confused, frustrated, or simply "stuck." These are the things that should raise red flags and be improved to create greater efficiency and ease for customers.

3. "When might you use this product/service?"

Although you'll be watching the participants use the product or service in their typical context of use, you want to be sure of example when else they might use it in their day-to-day life. For instance, you might be watching a customer test out a new tech gadget at their workplace, but there's a high chance that they might also use it while on their daily commute, resting at home, or exercising.

4. "Will you use this product/service for personal or professional reasons?"

Similarly, you'll want to know the specific use cases for this new product or service. This can also help you decide if you should be more of a B2B or B2C company. You can better target audiences if you know if your products or services are being used to fulfill workplace duties or personal pleasures.

5. "Will you use this product/service alone or as part of a team?"

This question is key because it can reveal how many people are actually interacting with your products or services. Newspaper and magazine companies recognize that circulation figures are often much smaller than readership, and the same principle can be applied to other brands and improve targeting efforts.

6. "Do you prefer (a) or (b)?"

This is an essential question if you're using the contextual inquiry to compare two models of a product or service, as participants can help you decide which prototype will be better received by customers.

7. "What would make you choose this product/service over that of a competitor?"

At the end of the day, you want to know what already differentiates your products or services from those of competitors and what more you can do to improve on that. When participants are hands-on with the product or service, they'll have a much easier time relaying exactly what they enjoy about your differentiation.

For more information, read our guide to service design next.

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