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Method

Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured interview method. Participants are observed and interviewed in their natural environment. 

Purpose

  • To gather information about behaviour. Behaviour is often difficult for participants to truthfully describe in a lab-based interviews.
  • To put participants at ease. Being in the right environment can also help them mentally for the interview. 
  • To collect information about the environment and context of use. 

What you get

  • Rich qualitative data about real behaviours and use.
  • Photographs and rich documentation of the environment or behaviours you are studying.
  • Insight to things people don't talk about when using a product or service.

Strengths

  • Great at investigating the processes and sequences that make up our behaviours. Participants can 'talk out loud' as they do something.
  • Great for discovery. Participants are able to bring unexpected things to the researcher's attention.
  • Good for creating safe spaces. This is important to help participants relax or to share private moments, objects or environments.

Weaknesses

  • Requires a lot of skill, and so is not a method for inexperienced researchers.
  • Researchers need to be equipped for potentially difficult environments or subject matter.
  • Travelling to people's homes or workplaces could put the researchers at risk.
  • Not always ethically appropriate. 
  • Time consuming and often requires travel.

Tips

You don’t always have to conduct an interview 'in context' to collect great data. Ask yourself, what are the benefits of conducting this interview in x context? If there are none, reconsider. 

If you are trying to learn how someone DOES or USES something, then contextual inquiry is the best option. 

Ethics need to be very carefully considered.

Toolkits and resources

Reviewed 29 April 2020

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