Contextual user research: a guide

By Inviqa

Here we explore why contextual user research is an important part of the research mix.

Getting user experience (UX) right requires a holistic approach to user research. Any decisions around customer-facing digital products and services should be informed by a holistic view of real customer behaviours, preferences, and journeys.

This is where contextual user research comes in. Contextual Inquiry is the technique of studying users in their own natural environment, be that in the workplace, home, or elsewhere, to really get under the skin and understand what makes your customers tick.

The aim is to unearth the details and intricacies of work or play that help you discover parameters, criteria, features, or process flows for design or redesign – the real-world details you couldn't dream up in a studio without the right level of prompting.

With a million different parameters to take into account, contextual inquiry can be hugely helpful in the collection, collation, and analysis of this information.

Getting started with affinity mapping

Before conducting your contextual user research, start by getting a team of people together to a hands-on brainstorm session. The aim of this task is to create an affinity map that can be used to create potential interview questions for your users, and, most importantly, to develop a focus statement to focus the project and the contextual inquiry.

An affinity map is built over a number of stages:

1. Idea generation

Encourage the team to throw in as many ideas as possible and stress that there are no bad ideas.

What kind of ideas? It could be anything: questions, assumptions, fears, possible errors in the current system, forward-looking views, and so on.

If your team finds it difficult to not analyse as they go along, adopt the 'green hat' from De Bono's 'Six Thinking Hats' theory – a great method for eliminating commentary and allowing only pure, organic ideas to be generated and shared.

2. Identification of groups

Record all of the ideas on sticky notes and then start arranging them and grouping them into themes, remembering that they don't have to be definitive yet. Start looking for trends, patterns, and evolving relationships taking out the sticky notes that don't seem to be relevant anymore.

3. Identification of relationships

You have now identified affinity groups, and should draw the relationships between these affinity groups to indicate hierarchy and inter-connectivity.

Affinity mapping is a great way to generate initial insights as a starting point for research, and to make associations from seemingly unassociated data to reveal a hypothesis at the start of the project.

That said, affinity maps are arguably put to best use once your contextual inquiry has been conducted, which is also a good idea, provided you have the time to do so. Re-producing an affinity map after the contextual inquiry research can help to analyse the findings by showing the range of problems discovered and any patterns that have been uncovered.

How to conduct a contextual inquiry 

Contextual inquiry can be challenging to conduct, so here are three key areas that can often go wrong if not considered properly in advance.

1. Time management and planning

The time you decide to spend in a user's context should be carefully decided. While you may be tempted to be there with the users for a short, specific amount of time, it's a good idea to spend as much time as possible.

Why? Well let's say you've decided to spend two hours with customer care executives and your task is to study how users interact with the portal. From those two hours, deduct the hello time, explaining why you are there, the coffee time, and the settling down time. Also, deduct the time you would spend getting to grips with what is happening around you.

Then deduct the time that is needed for the participant to get used to someone being around and inquiring about their day-to-day tasks. How much are you left with? Even though contextual user research may seem like a lengthy and time-consuming process, it's a very insightful method, and actually quite an enjoyable experience.

2. Research participants and recruitment

As with all user research, the participants should be representatives of the deemed user groups.

To do this properly, make sure it is discussed in depth using the affinity maps as further guidance. You may think you know which department needs to be researched to improve customer satisfaction, or what profile customer you need to research, but a well worked-through affinity map could highlight a few other user or customer groups that hadn't been originally considered.

User research recruitment needs to be specific and well documented to ensure results can be analysed properly according to the profiles of the participants.

3. Research plan and structure

A fully-structured research plan could be restrictive and concentrate solely on getting answers to the questions written down. The important thing is to go with the users flow, stay focussed on the tasks that the user is doing, and discuss any queries as you go along (without interrupting natural behaviour).

Another problem area when conducting contextual inquiry is trying to interpret as you listen. Finish the entire conversation and then spend time analysing and coming up with implications for design afterwards. This can be difficult as it is normal human behaviour to process and analyse whilst taking notes.

A good tactic is to separate facts from any assumptions or interpretations in your notes by using a different coloured pen or highlighter, a different kind of bullet point, or simply use quotation marks to indicate the direct words used by your participant. When you get back to your notes you'll know exactly what the participant said and you can interpret and analyse it accurately.

Organising results: contextual inquiry models

After you've conducted the inquiry and have your notes in place it's time to start analysing.

There are six main contextual user research models, which should be used in different combinations depending on the objectives and requirements of the research project.

They all sort the information in different manners, producing different flow diagrams that help to build a truly holistic view. It isn't always clear which one's are most suitable, but should soon become apparent as you start building them out.

1. The flow model 

This is used to:

  • Identify roles and responsibilities
  • Determine work flow hierarchies
  • Understand interaction links between these roles (direct/indirect/monthly/quarterly)

A flow model could show the different roles involved in an organisation and the detailed connections between them.

2. The sequence model 

This is used to:

  • Separate primary tasks, secondary tasks, and tertiary tasks
  • Identify the intent of the task
  • Understand the steps involved in completing the tasks
  • Highlight any possible errors

A basic sequences model could look like this:

  • Task 1: To take orders in a restaurant
  • Intent: To provide a good quality of service so customers want to come back
  • Steps involved: introduce, offer a drink, give time to settle down, provide menu etc.
  • Error: Unable to give information, lack of communication between the kitchen and the service staff

3. The cultural model

This is used to understand:

  • Company beliefs
  • Company values
  • Frustrations
  • Pressures

4. The physical model 

This involves the analysis of workspace dynamics:

  • List or draw a map of the floor plan
  • Place in it all the materialistic elements like kiosks, desks, printers, inventories etc. which contribute

5. The artefact model 

This is used to:

  • Understand the availability and use of artefacts (other than digital platforms)
  • List any artefacts such as calculators, diaries, notebooks, types of archiving folders
  • Highlight anything that has the potential to make a difference towards an efficient and effective working environment or customer experience

6. The sensory model  

This includes:

  • Listing all the materialistic and non materialistic aspects that contribute to the experience of using the product.
  • For example, if it was a project for a restaurant, the ambience (colours, decor, music, cutlery etc.) plays a role.

Creating the models can be very time consuming. The process can be more efficient by making sure the key aspects from the six Contextual Inquiry models are included in the affinity maps at the beginning of the project.

This ensures that the research or the test plan delivers results already focused on contextual inquiry criteria, making it easier to sort it into models for analysis.


Most systems, products, and customer interface designs are complex. Getting it right will make a huge difference to the customer experience, brand reputation, and ultimately to a company's success. Just as Don Norman's book on 'Living with complexity' discusses, complexity can be 'tamed' by understanding the total system, and the best solutions are those that are designed with all aspects fitting perfectly together.