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Contextual Inquiry: Put Yourself in Your User’s Shoes

Empathizing with users requires you to put yourself in their shoes, and depending on your research needs, one of the best ways to do that is with a contextual inquiry.

According to Nielsen Norman Group, “Contextual inquiry is a type of ethnographic field study that involves in-depth observation and interviews of a small sample of users to gain a robust understanding of work practices and behaviours.” 

One of the responsibilities of a user researcher is to determine the best research methods for the given problem space, so when do you use a contextual inquiry, how do you conduct one, and are there any drawbacks? 

What is contextual inquiry and how is it connected to ethnographic field study?

An ethnographic field study is all about observation in a specific context with the goal of gaining a better understanding of your user’s main pain points. There are different ways of conducting a field study; you can simply observe (direct observation), or you can participate and interview the user, the latter being a contextual inquiry. 

Here is an example of contextual inquiry compared to a similar research method:

Direct observation

You’re in the process of researching municipal dog park infrastructure, and are currently in the phase of transcribing semi-structured interviews. In order to establish more concrete objectives and to determine the best questions to ask, you first completed a direct observation field study. The field study involved you visiting a couple parks for a predetermined amount of time and making notes and observations. You also collected some quantitative data to help paint a more detailed picture of the dog park usage. 

During your time at the park, you simply observed. You didn’t ask anyone any questions, didn’t bring your own dog. The goal was to observe users in the context of the problem space. After you collected the data, you conducted an affinity diagramming exercise with another UXer, and the themes that emerged helped you focus the research objectives and write interview questions for the next phase of the study.  

Contextual inquiry

Another research project you worked on was about how to keep amateur rock climbers (specifically boulderers) interested and participating in the sport. In other words, understand how to keep climbers climbing. To understand why people stop doing something, it’s important to identify their main pain points. In addition to a usability study and semi-structured interviews, you conducted a contextual inquiry

You spent time with amateur climbers at a local outdoor bouldering area. Throughout your time with them, you took on a master-apprentice relationship. This is a good way to put yourself in your user’s shoes and get them to explain the actions they take while in a specific context. You did everything they did, asked questions along the way, and were able to dig deeper to gain a better understanding of their mental models.   

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When to conduct a contextual inquiry  

When and if you should conduct a contextual inquiry depends on your research needs. If you are launching a new product or service, you can conduct a contextual inquiry with a competitor’s offering to help identify existing user pain points. You can also conduct a contextual inquiry after you have designed and released your offering. Remember, UX design and research is iterative, so it’s important that you’re picking the best methods for the needs and objectives of your stakeholders at that specific time. 

A contextual inquiry is really good for clarifying certain pieces of data. While during an interview, participants need to recall or share their opinions about certain things, contextual inquiry allows you to experience it yourself, gauge reactions and emotions on the spot. It’s a great method when you need to observe some kind of social interactions or live through the user’s experience to find out what they felt right after it happened.

Keep in mind, if you are working on a design for something like a subscription form on your website, something not too complex, then you should not allocate time to a contextual inquiry.   

A contextual inquiry can provide additional insights that you may not discover during another research method, like a usability test or a survey. Once you take someone out of a controlled setting and put them in their typical environment to complete certain tasks, it’s an opportunity to observe more natural interactions. 

That said, you must have the time and budget to conduct a contextual inquiry, and as many researchers know, sometimes these things are tough to come by. When things take longer, they are typically more expensive. Putting yourself in the context of multiple users’ day-to-day lives is time consuming, and then you still have to analyze and sythesize your data.  

So if budget and time allows, always ask yourself whether a contextual inquiry makes sense for your objectives. If you believe that taking on a master-apprentice relationship in your target group’s environment will help you better understand their pain points, then you should definitely consider it.

How to conduct a contextual inquiry  

contextual inquiry

Every research study starts with a plan, and in order to create this plan, you have to interview and meet with your stakeholders. The plan ensures everyone is on the same page regarding the main objectives, research methods, participants, and even other details like the location and timeline of the study. 

After plan approval, you move onto the screening and recruiting phase. You have to find relevant participants within your target group who have the time and are comfortable enough to have you shadow them. Depending on your objectives and the context, you may be spending anywhere from an hour to a whole day with the user.

The NNG highlights four guiding principles for conducting a contextual inquiry:

  1. Context: Must be in the user’s environment 
  2. Partnership: Both the researcher and user work together to understand and complete tasks 
  3. Interpretation: Make observations and interpretations, and seek validation from the user
  4. Focus: Keep the main objectives in mind throughout the inquiry 

While you are observing the user and participating, you should take notes, ask questions, and get the user to think out loud while performing certain tasks. You should also collect artifacts, like photos and videos. These will help you and your stakeholders visualize your target group’s environment in which they interact with your product or service. 

Once you have all your data, it’s time to analyze and synthesize. We recommend transferring all your notes and observations to sticky notes using a whiteboard platform, like Mural for example, and then conducting an affinity diagramming exercise. Mural is good because it’s easy to create a board and sticky notes, and you can share it with your team and collaborate on the board in real time. 

After you identify your main themes, you can generate some “how might we” statements, which act as jumping off points for your solution brainstorming. Finally, you gather your findings and present them either as a report or a presentation, sometimes both, whatever your stakeholders prefer. 

What are the drawbacks of a contextual inquiry?  

contextual inquiry

A contextual inquiry is not as controlled as a lab study (like a usability test), so you need to go with the flow while remaining unbiased and keeping the four principles above in mind. Here are some other things to consider when conducting a contextual inquiry:

Participant bias

Not everyone is comfortable having somebody shadow them, and some don’t have the experience of explaining their actions while performing them. There are also people who simply want to provide correct information or are eager to please. This can all result in participant bias (when your participant changes their behavior or answers in order to give you what they think you want).

This results in skewed data because you are not observing or learning how something is done, you are just seeing how the participant thinks you want it to be done. 

Pro tip: To help prevent or avoid participant bias, remind your participants that there are no wrong answers, provide encouragement and thank them throughout the contextual inquiry. 


Sometimes people need to vent and that’s okay. After all, you are looking to understand your user’s main pain points. But, you have more to gain by the user talking you through their actions, participating yourself, and asking questions. If the user verbalizes an issue, make note of it, but remember that the root of the problem may not even be understood by the user; that’s your job. If you feel more like a complaint department than a researcher, guide the user back on track by getting them to explain the actions they’re taking.  

Budget and time

As mentioned above, a contextual inquiry can take a long time, and time costs money. It’s possible that your stakeholders may prefer a more efficient research method. As a researcher it is your responsibility to determine the best methods to use and the best alternatives. If you strongly feel that a contextual inquiry makes sense, then make the case for it, just make sure you have a backup strategy of using other UX research methods.  

Your own bias

This is a drawback to most user research methods, which is why skilled researchers are able to keep their bias in check. In a usability study, you can read from a usability testing script, everything happens in the order you want it to, and it will likely take an hour or so (depending on the study). Remaining unbiased is more of a challenge with a contextual inquiry because you are likely doing some unscripted conversing and for a prolonged period of time while multitasking (taking notes, photos, video, etc.). 

Contextual research vs Contextual inquiry

Contextual research is a type of research that focuses on understanding the context in which a product, service, or experience is used. It is a qualitative research method that involves observing and interviewing people in their natural environment to gain insights into their behavior, motivations, and attitudes. 

While сontextual inquiry is a type of ethnographic field study that involves close examination of a small sample of users and interviews with them in order to develop a thorough understanding of work practices.

Contextual research and contextual inquiry are closely related, but they are not the same. Contextual research is a broader term that encompasses a variety of research methods, including contextual inquiry.

Empathizing through contextual inquiry  

A contextual inquiry is a great way to put yourself in your user’s shoes and get a deeper understanding of their mental model. You get to observe, participate, and ask questions in real time. You experience first hand how your user thinks and acts in relation to your product or service within their natural environment.

That’s the best thing about user research and solving complex problems, sometimes you need to get your hands dirty in order to discover the insights that lead to the success of your product or service. 

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