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  • Contextual Inquiry In UX: What Is, How To, and When Do You Use It

An effective way of directly observing the users and their behaviors is called the contextual inquiry method or also known as the participant observation or popularly known as on-site study.

What is contextual inquiry?

Unlike usability testing, this research method does not involve setting people certain tasks to do, but instead, researchers need to visit the participants’ homes or their workplaces and talk to them. 

The contextual inquiry method involves observing people in their natural context and asking them questions to fill in the gaps of the observation. 

This method is an excellent way to discover better means to improve a certain process, product, or service. Unlike in user interviews where you ask people questions, this method lets you observe people and ask them their feedback to yield enough actionable data that you need for your research. 

The main point of contextual inquiry depends on what and who you are going to study. You may do phone interviews but you cannot do contextual inquiry unless you are in the real context of what you are trying to find out or learn about. 

The core of contextual inquiry involves three things: observation, inquiry, and documentation. This method lets us observe people doing different activities. But why not just ask them after? People easily forget and not all details will be remembered after. It is best to observe them doing the activities so you can properly take note of everything they do during the process.

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Guiding principles of contextual inquiry

These are the four guiding principles of contextual inquiry:


As explained, the interview must take place in the context of use. Usually, this is conducted in a workplace or home setting but now that we are in the digital age, we can conduct contextual inquires in a wider range of settings and scenarios. 

The researcher observes the use of the product and talks to the participant about what has happened in the session. Also, it is possible to explore previous interactions that are not observed before. 


There should be a collaborative partnership between the researcher and the participant to better understand what the participant is doing and why. 

A contextual interview starts with observation and shifts to discussion, which tackles the things that happened in rapid shifts throughout the interview.  

Mutual interpretation

This involves the researcher explaining the conclusions and interpretations of the participant throughout the interview. The participant can correct or add more insights to the researcher’s interpretations. 


It is important for the researcher to stay focused on the topics that need exploration in order to provide insightful data needed to make the improvements on the project’s scope. 

The researcher can ask the participant to perform specific tasks if they are to be examined during the research brief.

What are the advantages of contextual inquiry?

Contextual inquiry is beneficial in cases where you want to find out about the users. You may find this method most useful in the early stages of your project.

Like for example, when you want to develop an application but have no idea whether your users will benefit from it or not. 

This method may be used if you want to know how users can solve the problem your application aims to fix. 

You may also perform this method if you are interested to know the competing applications and what participants use as alternatives. 

Below are good reasons to utilize contextual inquiry in your UX research:

  • It reveals information and data that users may not be aware of
  • Observing users in their natural environment reveals more accurate information
  • It provides highly detailed information compared to other qualitative research methods
  • This method can be carried out wherever a user is located/based


The cons of conducting the contextual inquiry

There are certain drawbacks to this method, which includes:

  • Intensive use of time and resources. As compared to other research methods, this method takes a lot of time in visiting the participants and conducting observations. Additionally, this can be costly as well. 
  • A qualitative method that requires a lot of effort to become “statistically significant”. A researcher should carefully interpret data from this kind of research to get the right information that can be used for project development. This may be done by running other forms of research in order to know the impact of the issues identified in the contextual research.

You can refer to the graph below to know the benefits and drawbacks of contextual inquiry method as compared to onsite usability testing

How do you conduct contextual inquiry?

Time is needed in preparing for the contextual inquiry method. The researcher needs to have enough time to determine the things needed to be examined with the users and the methods to use to get this done.

There should be a research brief, where these things can be read so the researcher can refer to it every time during the whole process.

The participants should be prepared for the contextual interview. Equally important is to let the users know and understand that they are not the ones who are put to test, but rather the product or application is with the participants carrying out the test. 

This is important so the participants are not pressured in any way so the results will stay truthful based on their experiences. 

There are three stages in the contextual inquiry method. These are the following:


This is the stage where the researcher and the user establish trust and communication. The researcher should make introductions about himself, what the research is about, and the purpose of it. 

The researcher may also ask the participants if they can record the whole experience as well as inform them when the recording should start and stop. 

In this stage, the participants are assured of their confidentiality and are asked permission regarding the usage of data anonymously. 

The participants are informed of all the tasks that need to be carried out and how the contextual interview will take place. 

The process

This stage is where the researcher focuses on the outline planning and also the time where the researcher observes the users. 

Discussion about what was seen is also held and any notes and recordings available should be taken and discussed.  

Wrapping up

In this stage, the researcher informs the user about the observations, interpretations, and conclusions. This is where the participant is asked about their own inputs if there is any additional information that was missed or any misconceptions that were observed. 

You can refer to the UX Knowledge Base's Infographic below summarizing what contextual inquiry is and its process:

Contextual inquiry in summary

Contextual inquiry tips

Record the whole experience whenever possible

A recorded video is preferred in this kind of research so you can later review the actions. If not possible, you can suggest audio recording.

Recording each session is helpful for you in case you want to go over the activities again. 

Also, recorded audio and video is helpful to those who are not in the session—for them to better understand the whole process. 

Remember to always ask permission upfront and to let the users know the rules if you want to record their sessions. 

Below is a good example of a recorded contextual inquiry experience:

Take detailed notes

Always take notes and jot down all details that you observe. It is better if you carry a notebook every session so you can easily take down notes about what the person is doing, the important quotes given, and any other observations. 

Take photos

Taking photos can give you a sense of the place and the key issues to be addressed as well. When you take photos, be sure to label them so you can easily understand what you are looking at.

Photos are also helpful when sharing your user research to others. Having photos of the different issues are helpful to better understand the problems. 

Create sketches

The difference between photos and sketches is the later shows how things work. This is important to point out what is working and what isn’t. You may also create sketches of your conceptual model. This will help you create better recommendations and solutions later on. 

Plan your questions ahead

In order for you to get the right data, you need to prepare your questions ahead of time. You need to put a lot of thought and care into your questions and ensure that you ask the same set of questions to each participant. 

Create your questions ahead of time and run them past other people to make sure that your questions make sense before you conduct contextual interviews. 


Contextual inquiry is an indispensable method when it comes to UX design. Unlike in usability tests, contextual inquiries do not stimulate anything for the user as it offers you with deep insights into how users use a product, service, or application. 

However, understand that this method has its limitations as well. You need to consider the pros and cons of this method before conducting your research.  

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Mary Ann Dalangin

About the author

A content marketing strategist and a UX writer with years of experience in the digital marketing industry.

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