Observe users interacting with your product or prototype, asking probing questions into the how and why of their actions. 

👥 10 and more | ⏰ weeks | 💪🏼 high effort


When needing to understand the particular context in which your customers interact with your product or service, employ contextual inquiry interviews to both observe and probe into the specific behaviors you’re curious about. 

These interviews should include a healthy balance of questions delving into thoughts and emotions at moments of interest, as well as passive observation of the participant demonstrating how the product or prototype is used to achieve their goals. After the interviews, the team should be able to combine responses and observations into key insights that will drive understanding of user, context, and solution. 

Who is involved? 

Contextual inquiry interviews require a recruiter to find the appropriate participants based on the research goals; a moderator who is capable of understanding and accomplishing that healthy mix of probing questions and passive observation during the interview; a note-taker during the interview, to relieve that burden from the moderator; and a team to comb through, analyze, and identify learnings for understanding the user or proposed solution at the end of the process. 

How is it done? 

  1. Identify several appropriate types of users to question and observe — those either currently using your product, or exhibiting the sorts of needs and behaviors that you’re interested in with other products — and recruit them for in-house interviews. If the team would like to engage with users directly in the field instead, spend this time thinking of ideal locations for observing and interviewing participants (outside a store, in a cafe, etc.). Create an interview guide for the sorts of questions you would like to pose to participants, as well as key actions or emotions to watch for during observation. Conduct the interviews with the interview guide in-hand. Be sure to have the note-taker record extensive notes during the interviews, even if you’re in the field, so the moderator can focus on engaging with the participant and responding to facial cues. Review the notes as a team after all the interviews. Pick out insights that can identify any opportunities to solve your user’s needs or problems, or if testing a prototype, determine whether it was validated through user interaction in context. Identify the ideal target user and location for observation and recruit based on those factors. 
  2. Develop a field guide, which for this kind of research may include instructions for observing the participant and particular behaviors to look out for if they arise. 
  3. Conduct the ethnography with each recruit individually, acting as the note-taker and quiet observer in their natural environment. The sessions can last from minutes to hours. Be sure to jot down any potentially surprising or unexpected actions, phrasing, or attitudes. 
  4. After the completion of these interviews, the team will likely spend several days combing through the participant responses, highlighting particularly interesting answers or observations, and collecting them into recommendations for addressing these users’ needs and wants. 



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