Contextual inquiry

The educational technology and digital learning wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Contextual inquiry is a field method used in user-centered design, in particular in participatory design variants.

According to, “Contextual interviews are like usability tests because you watch and listen as users work. They differ from usability tests because you go to the user and watch and listen to them as they work in their own environment. Contextual interviews are more natural and sometimes more realistic because they occur in the person’s environment. They are also usually quite informal.”

Usability Body of Knowledge defines “Contextual inquiry [as] semi-structured interview method to obtain information about the context of use, where users are first asked a set of standard questions and then observed and questioned while they work in their own environments.”

Liza Potts (2009), defines contextual inquiry as {{quotation|a field research method used in usercentered design. It is also often associated with participatory design methods. Contextual inquiry can be referred to as “apprenticeship compressed in time”, wherein the researchers locate themselves within the participant’s location in an effort to understand the tasks undertaken by the participant. Such insights are meant to lead to improved technologies, such as interfaces, systems, and devices.


According to, “In a contextual interview, you watch and listen as the user does his or her own work. You don't usually impose tasks or scenarios on the user. The observer listens to the user but may also ask clarifying questions and probe to gain greater understanding of what the user is doing and thinking. The results are usually qualitative rather than quantitative.”

According to fluid (retrieved April 2011), “Contextual inquiry is basically a structured field interviewing method, based on a few core principles that differentiate this method from plain, journalistic interviewing. It is based on the master-apprentice model of learning: observing and asking questions of the user as if she is the master craftsman and the interviewer is the new apprentice.”




  • Beyer, H. & Holtzblatt, K. (1998) Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers ISBN 1-55860-411-1
  • Good, M. (1989). Contextual Field Research in a Usability Engineering Process. SIGCHI Bulletin, 20 (4), 25-26.
  • Holtzblatt, K., Wendell, J. B., & Wood, S. (2005). Rapid contextual design: A how-to guide to key techniques for user-centered design. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.
  • Rampoldi-Hnilo, L. & English, J.(2004). Remote Contextual Inquiry: A Technique to Improve Enterprise Software. Boxes and Arrows. HTML
  • Spinuzzi, C. (2005). The Methodology of Participatory Design. Technical Communication, 52 (2), 163-174.
  • Liza Potts and Gerianne Bartocci. 2009. <Methods> Experience Design </Methods>. In Proceedings of the 27th ACM international conference on Design of communication (SIGDOC '09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 17-22. DOI=10.1145/1621995.1621999
  • Raven, M. E. and Flanders, A. (1996). Using Contextual Inquiry To Learn About Your Audience. Journal of Computer Documentation, 20 (1), 1-13.
  • Whiteside, J. Bennett, J., & Holtzblatt, H. (1988). Usability engineering: Our experience and evaluation. In M. Helander (Ed.). Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction. New York, NY: Elsevier Science Publishing. 791-817.