A directory of resources inthe field of technical communication.

Contextual Inquiry

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Contextual inquiry is a specific type of interviewing for gathering data from users. It is usually done by one interviewer speaking to one interviewee at a time, in the location (context) where users tend to work. The aim is to gather as much data as possible from the interviews for later analysis.



Analyse Context of Use

Who are the intended offsiteuser and what are their offsitetask? (Why will they use the system? What is their experience and expertise?) What are the offsitetechnical and offsiteenvironmental constraints? (What types of hardware will be used in what organisational, technical and physical environments?)

UsabilityNet (2006). Articles>Usability>Methods>Contextual Inquiry


Anthropologists Go Native in the Corporate Village

Anthropologist Elizabeth Briody earned her PhD studying communities of Mexican-American farm workers and Catholic nuns. For the past 11 years, though, she's been studying a different community -- the men and women of General Motors. As GM's 'industrial anthropologist,' Briody explores the intricacies of life at the company. It's not all that different from her previous work. 'Anthropologists help elicit the cultural patterns of an organization,' she says. 'What rules do people have about appropriate and inappropriate behavior? How do they learn those rules and pass them on to others?' Briody is a pioneer in a growing and influential field -- corporate anthropology. What began as an experiment in a handful of companies such as GM has become an explosion. In recent years, some of the biggest names in business have recruited highly trained anthropologists to understand their workers and customers better, and to help design products that better reflect emerging cultural trends. These companies are convinced that the tools of ethnographic research -- minute observation, subtle interviewing, systematic documentation -- can answer questions about organizations and markets that traditional research tools can't.

Kane, Kate A. Fast Company (1996). Articles>Usability>Methods>Contextual Inquiry


Bloom's Taxonomy in Technical Content Development

Technical writers provide information enabling users to learn and apply various technologies. In the endeavor to enable users, technical writers often need to use different strategies of classification, presentation, and structuring for the different types of information. However, in most cases such classifications or decisions about the best method of presentation and optimum structure are guided by instinct and are rarely heuristic. In this article, we present an established classification of information called Bloom’s taxonomy (of educational objectives), which can help technical writers make decisions about content classification.

Robbani, Wasique. KeyContent.org (2006). Articles>Document Design>Academic>Contextual Inquiry


Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry is basically a structured field interviewing method, based on a few core principles that differentiate this method from plain, journalistic interviewing. Contextual inquiry is more a discovery process than an evaluative process; more like learning than testing. Contextual inquiry is based on three core principles: that understanding the context in which a product is used (the work being performed) is essential for elegant design, that the user is a partner in the design process, and that the usability design process, including assessment methods like contextual inquiry and usability testing, must have a focus. For example, suppose you need to assess the usability of a wrench for automotive repair. Using contextual inquiry, you'd visit mechanics at auto repair shops and see how they work. You'd take in not only physical arrangements such as the location of the tool chests, or cramped conditions inside engine compartments, but also environmental concerns, such as the level of cleanliness of their hands, or the noise level in the shop, or the tight schedules imposed by their bosses. All of these would help define a context for their work--and thus a context for the usage of your product, the wrench. You'd also listen to their gripes about your product; how it slips out of their hands if they've been working on greasy stuff, how it gnaws the corners off stubborn bolts. You'd ask them what would make their jobs easier; what design changes would help them. They're a partner in the design process. Of course, you'd conduct all this research centering on the one thing you're analyzing: the wrench. This focus is important--it sets the goals for the visit ('We need to know how they store their wrenches'). Once you're done with your site visit, you can assess from your notes whether you found out what you needed to know.

Hom, James. jameshom.com. Articles>Usability>Methods>Contextual Inquiry


Contextual Inquiry: Listening and Questioning to Improve Information Design   (PDF)

Contextual Inquiry is a field research technique that focuses on interviewing users in their own context as they do actual work. As a basis for effective design, Contextual Inquiry can contribute to the requirements and structure of systems and information. This half-day workshop presents a practical introduction to Contextual Inquiry as a step in designing information that supports and extends users' work.

Beabes, Minette A., Mary E. Raven, and Karen Holtzblatt. STC Proceedings (1993). Articles>Information Design>Methods>Contextual Inquiry


Create the World, The Interface Will Follow

In user experience design, there is a growing emphasis on starting projects by creating robust descriptions of the prospective users. Through contextual inquiry and persona development we gain insight into people’s needs; ascertain their desires; and illuminate their behavior, wishes, hopes and dreams. But in an attempt to create archetypal descriptions of people, the specificity of the environments people inhabit are often times diminished—research is conducted across broad cross-sections of markets to ensure that common experiences are identified and explored.

Wellings, Paula. Adaptive Path (2008). Articles>User Interface>User Experience>Contextual Inquiry


Driving Innovation and Creativity through Customer Data

This article explores the foundations of designing for innovation. Karen Holtzblatt has created contextual inquiry, a practical, customer-centered approach that helps designers develop creative solutions that dominate the competition.

Perfetti, Christine. User Interface Engineering (2002). Articles>Usability>Methods>Contextual Inquiry


Ethnographic Study / Field Observation

Observing users in the field is often the best way to determine their usability requirements. Traditional usability testing, while providing a laboratory environment that makes data collection and recording easy, also removes the user and the product from the context of the workplace. Sometimes, it's best to see exactly how things are done in the real world.

Hom, James. jameshom.com. Articles>Usability>Methods>Contextual Inquiry


Getting Started with Contextual Inquiries

The Process and Power team hadn’t conducted contextual inquires before. Since the group was originally launched as a start-up within a larger organization, the Product Design team often found itself in an ad-hoc rapid process with Software Development (SWD) – working frantically to develop the right amount of specificity to keep the SWD machine cranking and the goal of first release clearly in sights.

Sherman, Melissa. Designing the User Experience at Autodesk (2009). Articles>User Centered Design>Ethnographies>Contextual Inquiry


Gorilla Usability

Gorilla usability is about getting out from behind the video camera, the reports, the stats and all the guru commandments and actually getting to know your users.

Robinson, D. Keith. evolt (2002). Articles>Usability>Methods>Contextual Inquiry


How May I Help You? An Ethnographic View of Contact-Center HCI   (peer-reviewed)

This study used an applied ethnographic research method to investigate human-computer interaction (HCI) between call center agents and agent-facing software in the context of contact-center culture. Twenty semi-structured interviews were completed, along with non-participant observation at two contact centers, one that followed a user-centered design (UCD) process for software development and another that did not. Agent productivity and satisfaction at the non-UCD center were hampered by poor task-UI integration, ambiguous text labels, and inadequate UI standardization. Agents required multiple applications to complete a single task, leading to long task times and cognitive strain. In contrast, the UCD center used a unified UI that reduced task times and decreased cognitive strain. In both centers, the workflow was reported to be stressful at times; however, management at both companies employed high involvement work processes that mitigated this stress. Implications for possible high-involvement UI design are considered and a strategy for applied ethnographic research is discussed.

Kiewe, Howard. Journal of Usability Studies (2008). Articles>Human Computer Interaction>Usability>Contextual Inquiry


Information Technologies as Discursive Agents: Methodological Implications for the Empirical Study of Knowledge Work   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

Work activities that are mediated by information rely on the production of discourse-based objects of work. Designs, evaluations, and conditions are all objects that originate and materialize in discourse. They are created and maintained through the coordinated efforts of human and non-human agents. Genres help foster such coordination from the top down, by providing guidance to create and recreate discourse objects of recurring social value. From where, however, does coordination emerge in more ad hoc discursive activities, where the work objects are novel, unknown, or unstable? In these situations, coordination emerges from simple discursive operations, reliably mediated by information and communication technologies (ICTs) that appear to act as discursive agents. This article theorizes the discursive agency of ICTs, explores the discursive operations they mediate, and the coordination that emerges. The article also offers and models a study methodology for the empirical observation of such interactions.

Swarts, Jason. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (2008). Articles>Technology>Research>Contextual Inquiry


The Interface in the Environment: "One Size Fits Nobody"

At the outset of an interface design project we would normally conduct a detailed phase of user requirements gathering. We have discussed the various methods of conducting these in previous articles, but typically this includes stakeholder interviews and task analysis exercises. As many of you will be aware the results of this stage will lead to the development of user personas, task scenarios and ultimately lead to the development of wireframe screens of the interface. We tailor this approach to suit the job, so that specialised interfaces such as stock trading software will focus more on complex task analysis while mass-market interfaces such as Interactive TV will focus more on different user profiles. If the research and analysis is carried out well, then the resulting interaction design should be effective, allowing users to complete the required tasks easily. However, apart from the user and task there is one other key factor influencing the usability of the interface – the user environment.

Long, Frank. Frontend Infocentre (2001). Design>Web Design>User Interface>Contextual Inquiry


Remote Contextual Inquiry: A Technique to Improve Enterprise Software

Enterprise software usability is difficult to evaluate because the standard product shipped on a CD is almost always customized when it is implemented. How then can we learn about the design issues that actual users encounter with customized software?

English, Jeff and Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo. Boxes and Arrows (2004). Articles>Usability>Methods>Contextual Inquiry


Research in Context: Ethnographic Usability   (PDF)

The only way to judge a product's acceptance in the workplace is through its use. Before release, developers would like to predict its acceptability to the target market. One predictor of acceptability is usability test results. Usability testing takes place outside of the user's natural environment in an artificial environment. This paper suggests ethnographic information might be used to predict a product's acceptability in the market in conjunction with traditional usability testing.

Dorazio, Patti A. and Julia Stovall. STC Proceedings (1996). Articles>Usability>Ethnographies>Contextual Inquiry


Site Visit Interviews: From Good to Great

Site visits are the best method we have of gaining real insight into the way customers work — to understand what customers do, rather than what they say they do. But to get the most from a site visit you need to polish your interviewing skills. Great interviewers show 5 characteristics from which we can learn.

Higgins, Gret. UserFocus (2008). Articles>Usability>Ethnographies>Contextual Inquiry


Why Doing User Observations First is Wrong

Field studies, user observations, contextual analyses, and all procedures which aim at determining true human needs are still just as important as ever – but they should all be done outside of the product process. This is the information needed to determine what product to build, which projects to fund. Do not insist on doing them after the project has been initiated. Then it is too late, then you are holding everyone back.

Norman, Donald A. JND.org. Articles>Usability>Testing>Contextual Inquiry

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