As User Experience (UX) practitioners conducitng user research we must work to understand users’ conscious and unconscious actions, but how?

We all know that users often misreport when asked questions, not because they are looking to intentionally deceive us, but because they are humans with their specializations, constructed self-images, and fallible memories. More often than not, they will lack the vocabulary of the discipline, tell you what they have come to believe, or say something incorrectly because they simply can’t remember after the fact.

People say one thing and do another. As researchers, we need to minimize misreporting.

As humans we all do this so it is not worth obsessing about it, but as researchers we need to take steps to minimize misreporting. One method for overcoming this problem is contextual inquiry, more commonly known as contextual interviews.

Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry at its core about observing engaged users in their natural context to see first hand what a user may not be able to report accurately. By watching the user and listening as they explain their task, you can begin to understand deep-seated perceptions and assumptions, as well as identify pain points and opportunities. In doing so, researchers can start piecing together a more holistic understanding of the problem and ultimately create a larger solution space to solve the problem.

To that end, contextual inquiry can be an incredibly powerful method, but since it relies on clients providing the right level of access and the research participants to take an above average active role in the process, it often can run off the tracks.

To help keep it on the rails, try to be mindful of the following tips.

1. What and Why?

What are you trying to solve, and why? These are questions I like to delve into right from the start. I find that clients frequently are interested in addressing symptoms rather than underlying problems. Why?

Well, often clients don’t fully understand the problem and it is our job to help them understand the meta problem. Given this, I like to try to dial in my client’s symptoms by asking successive open-ended questions. We find that by doing this, you end up with a more focused problem space, which in the end will help set the foundation for the research trajectory.

2. Select the Right Method for the Job

Contextual inquiry is a powerful tool. We love it, but it is not always the right fit. Sometimes it sadly does not fit in the timeline or budget. I appreciate that we as UX practitioners may not always align well with that kind of rationale, but this is design, and we are designing for others, not ourselves. So unfortunate as it may be, we do need to respect the business realities of the engagement. Other times, contextual inquiry may not work based on geographic proximity to our clients, or the given research context.

Furthermore, there may be hurdles to gaining access in heavily regulated industries like finance and healthcare, and of course, settings involving minors can always be tricky. In these cases, we need to select other methods that will be as utilitarian as possible and move on in earnest.

3. Where and Who

Once you understand the problem you think you are setting out to solve and have ensured contextual inquiry is an ideal fit the next step is to devise your research plan. To begin you need to ask yourself: where will I conduct the research, and who should be involved? These are critical questions that will ultimately direct your findings.

Giving this the proper consideration can not be overstated.

We could spend our lives looking for the right answers, but if you don’t look in the right spot, you will never find the right answers. So you need to pick the ideal context. Sometimes this may be obvious.

For example, when researching how people shop for a particular item in a grocery store, you should spend time on the isle that the product is located. Other times it can be a little nebulous, especially if it is an office environment. In all cases, though, make sure you are indeed observing users in the most natural context. If that means at their desk versus a board room, then that is what it has to be. No compromises. Similarly, if observing the natural behavior means watching a custodian, then that is who you should observe, and not their boss who thinks they have the answers.

Contextual inquiry means observing users in the most natural context possible, wherever this may be.

This point is not debatable, so hold your ground and respectively push back if your client pushes back at you.

4. Be Open and Honest

Much like our clients, the research participants will frequently lack an understanding of our methods and objectives. So remember empathy. Empathy is not only a positive trait for seeking an understanding of others for research purposes, but it is also helpful to remember when introducing research participants into an unfamiliar process. You need to keep in mind that as the researcher, you are ultimately the leader and need to inspire the participant for the process to be the most effective.

To accomplish this, we try to provide as much information about the process, what the participant should expect, and what we are trying to achieve. Now, of course, you can’t always detail every aspect of what you are trying to solve for as that may set the process down a trajectory which is unnatural and counterproductive. But you still need to prep the participant, and that’s especially important with contextual inquiry given that the participant needs to drive the train and expose us to their true thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors while engaged in a task or environment.

So clue them in, and empower them to make the process great.

5. Be Flexible but Firm

We have all experienced this; you believe to understand the problem you are solving for, and you have your research plan all laid out, but then BAM… something goes terribly wrong. But hey, life is messy. Get over it. We all need to adapt our vision at times to the circumstances, but that does not mean you need to compromise the research, and more importantly, never compromise the participants.

If your client refuses to let you speak with the custodian and instead tells you to talk to their boss, or they want you to solve a software problem in a board room and not in front of a user’s computer, that’s fine, but then you can’t do contextual interviews. This may be “fine” in their worldview, and again, they are your sponsor so that is their call, but that does not mean you have to continue to carry out the research plan as you designed it. So reiterate why you selected contextual inquiry as a method, let them know the downside of not doing it, and update the research plan with some other method.

In the end, you may not produce as insightful findings as you wish, and likely they won’t be as insightful as the client needs, but they are your sponsor, and that is what they wanted. So give them the best you can, politely help them understand why there may be a shortcoming, and at all costs, preserve the fidelity of the methods for the greater good of UX!


Contextual inquiry is a powerful tool in your toolkit, but as with all methodologies it has its pros and its cons. Knowing how and when to use it is the first step, but keep in mind that this will require a more engaged and informed participant in order to be successful.