Contextual Enquiry

Contextual inquiry set-upOn March 24th, Jenny and I headed down to a medical research institute in London to carry out some ‘contextual inquiry’ interviews with staff there. Jenny is working on a major project where she needs to know more about how users, in this case, wet lab biologists, use the web and search engines as part of their work.

A contextual enquiry (or sometimes inquiry) simply involves watching someone perform tasks in their everyday environment. It is a kind of ethnographic study – i.e. going out in the “field”, and studying how people do things.

Contextual enquiry is a bit like a usability test, but you’re just interested in in watching what people do, and less interested in any problems that are shown up. Normally, you simply observe peoples’ normal activities, and don’t set them specific tasks as such. It is usually only done early on in a project, when you’re trying to get an idea of how your own ‘product’ can be tailored to different user groups.

We interviewed six volunteers, to find out more about their day-to-day use of the web, and how it fits in with their research.

Contextual what?!

A great article from A List Apart, about how to explain UX research techniques in plain English, describes it thus:

Contextual inquiry

What it is in plain English: Observing what people do as they go about their day—not what they say they do.

Real-world example: You’re designing a website for woodworkers. You call up some woodworkers and ask if you can watch them for a few hours as they practice their craft. While they work, you observe what they do and ask questions about behavior that you don’t understand. The material you collect can shape every level of the website’s user experience.

Business value: Observing user behavior often helps to create a website that directly supports their day-to-day activities.

Contextual inquiry provides input into: Personas, user flows, wireframes, navigation schema, the content map, the site map, the content strategy, and UI design.

So how did the day go?

It was a pretty long day, but I think that we were able to gain some valuable insights from it.

Jenny did all the interviewing, and had prepared a range of tasks that our volunteers could try out, so that we could observe how they went about completing them. For some tasks, participants were invited to do whatever they would normally do – they were free to use anything on the web to complete the tasks. The tasks were really scenarios or guidelines, so that we had a framework for our observations.

For others, Jenny specified that the participants were asked to only use the EBI website. In this latter respect, we deviated a bit from a contextual inquiry proper, which should be non-prescriptive, but Jenny had particular things she wanted to learn about. In that respect, it became a bit more like a mini usability test.

I kept an eye on the time, wrote copious notes for each session, and took care of the video recording. Apart from hello and goodbye, I didn’t interact with the participants, and kept a pretty low profile.

Tools of the trade

How did we run the session? Well, the following were some of the essential things we used:

  • schedule for the day – name, interview time and contact for each participant
  • script – every session is pretty much the same, and there were two sets of 3 tasks each to choose from
  • consent forms – every participant was asked for their permission before we recorded anything
  • laptop + software – we used the Silverback app to record participant activity, video their face, and show where they clicked. This runs on a Mac.
  • logging sheets – keep notes for each stage of the interview, especially the tasks
  • video camera – the entire session was recorded
  • dictaphone – not used, but a handy backup
  • goodie bags and food – every participant received a little EMBL-EBI goodie bag, and we provided lunch for everyone (after a trip to the nearby M&S, no less!)


Find out more about contextual enquiry:

Contextual Enquiry explained (Gerry Gaffney)

Contextual interviews (

Explaining UX research to clients (A List Apart article)

Lots of articles on the subject (Dey Alexander Consulting)


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