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Contextual inquiry

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What is it?

Championed by Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer in their great book Contextual Design, contextual inquiry is a specific type of interview technique used for gathering "field data" from users.


Whilst wishing to avoid stating the obvious, it is nonetheless important to note that contextual inquiry is crucially all about gathering data in context.

That is, the key difference between contextual inquiry and other data capture techniques is that, to various degrees, the information to be captured is done in the user's place of work. Or, at the very least, an accurate or functionally equivalent simulacrum of that place of work, e.g. an appropriately appointed testing facility of some kind.

Like any other interview, contextual inquiry certainly involves asking questions. But, much more importantly, it also involves watching, listening and observing people as they go about their normal activity. Or whatever activity it is that is under investigation.

Contextual inquiry is thus strongly ethnographic - and shares many of the same goals, assumptions and techniques of scientific anthropology.

What's it for?

Much like a person in a darkened room using their hands to gain a tactile understanding of the space they occupy, contextual inquiry can be used to gauge the size and shape of a solution space.

It is most useful when there is no clear indication of what or why, precisely because it is such as fantastcially powerful discovery tool.

It's like epistemic Heineken - illuminating even the far, darkened corners of problem spaces where other discovery methods cannot reach. And generating rich loamy beds of data in the process - perfect for propogating fragile solutions to human-centered problems.

Sorry. Did I just become unnecessarily florid there for a moment?

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