Zwetana Penova,
Service & Product Design

Сontextual Inquiry - get Big Picture of Your User

Published April 18, 2016

A standard situation for every product manager or designer—you need to design for a target group you have never been in contact with before. That is a perfect moment to use contextual inquiry to find out as much information as possible about your potential users.

What is contextual inquiry about?

Contextual inquiry is a user research method which helps you to gather information and examine the environment, goals and demands of your potential users. In its spirit, contextual inquiry is close to anthropological observation and combines observation with interview. Observation means that it’s time to leave your office, get on your bike (in my case) and visit your potential customers in their real life! Get ready to learn new things.

How to prepare for a contextual inquiry?

Contextual inquiry needs some time for organization, so be aware of this. With a good project structure, you can still run it in a streamlined and fast way.

Find your goal

First of all, you will need to get your focus right. If your goal is, for example, to redesign an interface for a blood glucose meter for children, then you need to frame the desired goals very clearly: is it just about making the meter look visually more attractive for kids? Or is it about improving the usability, maybe even during the night time? That is a very clear goal that you can work on.

Focus on context

Depending on your focus, you need to describe the context you are willing to explore. Let’s stick with the scenario of a blood glucose meter for children in the night. So, now you would need to know more about the context in which this blood measuring is taking place. Is it about a hospital context, where medical stuff are carrying out the procedure, or is it about home use by parents? You need to be very clear about the context you want to investigate.

Recruit the right people

The next step would be to find the right people (probates) who are willing to cooperate in your inquiry. You will need to communicate the process and your goals very clearly so that your probates will not feel uncomfortable about being observed in a private situation.

Prepare your questions and documentary tools

An interview follows the first part of the contextual inquiry, so prepare a set of open-ended questions you would like to ask. Use them just as a reminder and be ready to improvise. The observation part will guide you toward new questions. Think about the best way to document your findings on the ground: this could be photography, video or sound recording. Ask your probates for their permission.

How to run a contextual inquiry?

A contextual inquiry needs an instinctive feel toward the situation and an ability to improvise. Here are a few standard rules to follow.

Do not judge

In the process, hold yourself back from jumping to any fast and early conclusions. Try to be as neutral as possible in your observations. Just document and learn.

Be curious

You want to get as much information as possible, right? Be curious about the actions, thoughts and feelings people in the set are going through. Ask detailed questions, force a dialog, and build empathy with your probates.

Treat people with respect

Contextual inquiry is about being as close to your potential user as is possible. Bring lots of tact and sensitivity towards the private situation you are allow to witness.


Contextual inquiry is a discovery process which yields lots of hidden data and impressions. It’s not the simplest test to run, but if your project is just at its beginning and your open questions list is getting longer and longer, than contextual inquiry is your user research method. It’s a chance to become involved in the context and to learn simultaneously about your users’ tasks, their workflow and behavior, their emotional conditions, etc. Beyond that, you will get a great deal of design inspiration and will build a trusting relationship with your future customer.