Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured observational and interview (inquiry) method to understand how and why a prospect or customers uses (existing) or may use (prototype) your solution in the environment that they use it (context).
This could be using an appliance in a kitchen, a tool on the shop floor, a device in a lab, an entertainment system in a home, software in the office, etc. This technique is good for getting rich information about general practices, the social, technical, and physical environments, and other solutions that are related.
The four principles of contextual inquiry are:
Focus – Plan for the inquiry based on a clear understanding of the purpose
Context – Go to where the customers interact with the solution (home, work, car, hotel, etc.)
Partnership – Talk to customers about their goals, motivations, pain points, etc. and engage them in uncovering unarticulated needs
Interpretation – Develop a shared understanding with the customer about what matters to them
A contextual inquiry generally has three phases:
The introduction—The researchers introduces themselves and may request permission to record and start recording. The researcher promises confidentiality to the participant, solicits a high-level overview of the participant’s goal, and consults with the participant on the specific activity and tasks they will be doing during the interview.
The body of the interview—The researchers observes the participant and inquire about why they are doing it and what they are thinking and feeling while they are completing their tasks. One researcher may take notes and/or video everything that happens while the other facilitates the conversation with the participant.
The wrap-up—The researcher summarizes what was gleaned from the interview, offering the user a chance to give final corrections and clarifications.
Following a contextual inquiry, the team meets and add determine insights. They also may capture representations of the activities and tasks (workflow and task analysis).