6 June 2012

Why are contextual inquiries so difficult?

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Jim Ross, Principal of Design Research at Electronic Ink, thinks contextual inquiry is the most difficult user research technique to perform effectively, as it requires a difficult balance between traditional interviewing and ethnographic observation. In an article for UXMatters, he discusses the most common problems one faces when conducting contextual inquiries and how to solve them.

“The key differentiator between contextual inquiry and other user research methods is that contextual inquiry occurs in context. It’s not simply an interview, and it’s not simply an observation. It involves observing people performing their tasks and having them talk about what they are doing while they are doing it.

Another key difference between contextual inquiry and other user research methods is that participants must take a more active role in leading their session. This is unfamiliar territory, and it can be uncomfortable for some people. The dynamic of interviews and focus groups is more familiar to participants, who take a more passive role, sitting back and waiting to answer a facilitator’s questions. In contrast, a contextual inquiry requires participants to take the role of an expert, leading the session by demonstrating and talking about their tasks. For those who are used to taking a more traditional, passive role during interviews, this role-reversal can be a difficult adjustment. Without intending to, participants often slip back into a passive, interviewee role.”

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