Contextual Inquiry.

This short insight is from of our Methods series: A discussion of useful working practices and ideas for better ideation and execution.  We discuss what each method is, why they are useful, and how to utilize them.


The Inquiry team perform an audit of working practices, by observing participants at work. This is accompanied by questions, either during or after the observation stage.


The purpose is to learn both how and why users do what they do. As an example, this could be how a person interacts with a computer application, and how their needs and attitudes affect such usage of it. Key learnings may transpire that might not otherwise emerge during a simple user interview.

The team can then map out how tools interact during complex activities—both digital and non-digital.


  1. Firstly, permission must be gained from both the participant and any relevant supervisors. Agreement on how data is used might be important here depending on how sensitive the project contents are—such as data covered by GDPR laws.
  2. During observation, it is key that participants act normally as the data needs to be natural to be truly accurate. The goal is to ask questions to help gain understanding what the participant is doing, and also why they are doing it.

    Note: Sometimes you may wish to save questions for after tasks have been finished. This may be because you do not wish to disrupt the flow of a task, influence the task, or because the task involves a third party that need not be interrupted by this contextual inquiry.  An example of the latter would be observing how the on-boarding team helps clients get started on their software platform via virtual conference calls.
  3. After completing your questioning, you should explain what you learned. This allows the user and yourself a chance to proof your work, and ensure it is correct.
  4. Finally, write up your notes in full. This will be your reference point for any potential improvements or key understandings.

Robust Approaches.

To close, it is worth pondering some key potential variables.

Firstly, aside from potential human error there are many other factors that could drastically change an inquiry session.

Time of day.

There may be different needs at different times. User behaviour can vary, such as focus and fatigue, or perhaps motivation spikes can be evident based on the immediately prior activity.

Note-Taking Methods.

How you conduct your audit can greatly influence people, especially if there isn't full transparency given to the participant about the reason for the audit. Therefore, your method for taking notes could unwittingly unnerve some users. In certain scenarios it could be more organic to record conversations, whereas for others you may wish to type or write in silence as not to interrupt anyone.  Ensuring your note-taking is appropriate for the environment your in is also key—for example asking questions about 'why' a participant is interacting with a customer in a certain way could undermine them in front of the customer.

Capture Context.

Finally, ensure you look up from note-taking regularly to be aware of your surroundings. How a user interacts with tools, co-workers, clients, and other variables may greatly differ from a huge range of contextual circumstances. It may help to have visual cues from your session to help your referencing—i.e. photos or videos.