Contextual Inquiry

Engineering Area
Analysis & problem definition
Group or Individual
Amount of People
Up to 15
Type of Class
Duration of Activity
Between one and two hours
Type of Activity
Collaborative team setting, On-line Classroom activity


What is this technique about

One first problem in the creativity process is to understand users: their needs, their desires, their goals and their approaches to tasks. Yet the task flow has become so habitual to the people who do it that they often have difficulty articulating exactly what they do and why they do it.

Contextual inquiry (Holtzblatt & Beyer, 2016) is an explicit step for understanding who the users really are and how they solve tasks on a day-to-day basis. The design team conducts one-on-one field interviews with users in their natural environment such as the workplace to discover what matters in a specific context. A contextual interviewer observes users as they solve their tasks and inquires into the users’ actions as they unfold to understand their motivations and strategy. The interviewer and user, through discussion, develop a shared interpretation of the work.

Interpretation sessions bring a team together to hear the whole story of an interview and capture the insights and learning relevant to their design problem. An interpretation session lets everyone on the team bring their unique perspective to the data, sharing design, marketing, and business implications. Through these discussions, the team captures issues, drawa task models and develops a shared view of the users whose data is being interpreted and their needs.

Contextual inquiry can be especially useful for designers who are creating products or services that are complex or that involve multiple steps or interactions.

Where does it come from 

Contextual inquiry was developed in the late 1980s by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt, who were working as human factors engineers at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). They developed the method as a way to better understand the needs and workflows of users in the workplace, with the goal of designing more effective software applications.

Beyer and Holtzblatt found that traditional methods of user research, such as surveys and interviews, often failed to capture the nuances of how people actually used technology in their everyday work. By observing users in their work environments and asking them questions about their tasks and goals, they were able to gain a deeper understanding of the context in which the technology was being used, and to design software applications that better met the needs of their users.

Since its development, contextual inquiry has become a widely used research method in the field of design, particularly in the areas of user experience (UX) and user-centered design. It has also been adapted and extended to other fields, such as anthropology, where it is known as ethnographic research.

For which purposes it is used (why in your engineering teaching)

The purpose of contextual inquiry is to gain insights into the needs, motivations, and challenges of users, and to use that information to design products and services that meet their needs more effectively. By observing users in their natural settings, creative engineers can gain a deeper understanding of how they use products or services and how they fit into their daily lives.

Contextual inquiry can be especially useful for designers who are creating products or services that are complex or that involve multiple steps or interactions. It can also be useful for designers who are creating products or services for a specific target audience, such as elderly users or people with disabilities. By using contextual inquiry, designers can create products and services that are more user-centred and that better meet the needs of their target audience.

How to use it

The typical Contextual Interview lasts 11⁄2–2 hours and is based on four principles that guide how to run the interview:

    • Context: Contextual inquiry is a research method that involves observing and discussing people’s life and work activities in their natural environment, while paying attention to the artifacts they create or work with. It also involves using retrospective accounts to gain insights into important events that happened outside the interview window, and understanding how tasks fit into the larger context of life, relationships, and self.
    • Partnership: Partnership is a crucial aspect of contextual inquiry, where designers collaborate with users to understand their motivations and strategies. The interviewer lets the user lead the interview by doing their own activities and commenting on them. Planned questions are avoided, and the conversation is guided towards the most important aspects of their lives, based on the project focus.
    • Interpretation: Interpretation is another key aspect, where designers work with users to determine the meaning of their words, emotions, and actions. Co-interpretation is used to produce a deeper understanding of how users do targeted activities and how they contribute to their overall life. This is important because when immersed in the context of their real life, people will remember what matters and ensure their motivations are not misconstrued.
    • Focus: Finally, focus is essential in steering the conversation towards meaningful topics within the project scope while ignoring things that are outside of it. The Cool Concepts and the Contextual Design models are used to gain insights into life and focus on relevant details. Users are also informed about the focus so they can steer the conversation in the right direction.

Interpretation sessions are an integral part of the design process, allowing teams to gain a deeper understanding of the data gathered during user interviews. These sessions typically involve the interviewer and 2-5 team members, each contributing insights from their unique perspective. This collaborative approach results in a richer understanding of the user and their needs than one person alone could provide.

As team members participate in both interviews and interpretation sessions, a shared understanding of the users and the most important design issues naturally evolves. This process helps to ensure that the design solution is informed by a comprehensive understanding of the user and their needs, leading to a more effective and user-centred design.

How to implement this techniques online

Preparation, what do before the session
    1. Split your class into groups of 4 – 6 participants.
    2. Make sure that each group has a stable video conference tool with a good bandwidth ready, since the camera of the interviewees will be needed for the observations.
    3. Prepare a digital whiteboard for each group for the interpretation sessions.
    4. Define the research questions you want to answer and the goals you want to achieve through the research.
    5. Identify and recruit participants who represent your target audience. It is ideal to recruit participants who have the need for the product or service you are designing.
    6. For observation the cameras of the interviewees are required. Make sure, that each interviewee has a working camara connection to the video conference tool.
    7. You can also let each group define their own research question and/or recruit participants.

During application, i.e., while giving the session

    1. Introduce the method and its purpose.
    2. Let the students observe and interview participants in their natural environment while they are engaging in activities related to your research questions. Use artifacts and retrospective accounts to ground the interview in actual instances.
    3. Ask the interviewees to show typical tasks or artefacts with their cameras or via screensharing. 
    4. After the interview sessions, let the students analyse the data collected during the contextual inquires on a digital whiteboard to identify patterns and insights that can inform the design process.
    5. Let the students use the synthesized insights gained from the contextual inquiries to inform the design process and create user-centered design solutions.

Follow-up, about what to do after the session

    1. Wrap up the exercise, e.g. let each group or team present their results.
    2. Ask each group, what they find important for the next steps in the creative process.
    3. Store the whiteboard.

Examples and/or testimonials

Below is an example from the course “User Experience Design” at Hochschule der Medien of Prof. Dr. Christoph Kunz. A team of students had the task to design an application, which supports collaborative watching of movies. It shows the main pain points of 5 interviewed cineastes.

Tools needed

You will need a platform to share screens and communicate with the participants, such as: MS Teams, Zoom or similar.
You will also need a white board solution with digital sticky notes such as Miro or Mural:

    • Zoom
    • MS Teams
    • Miro
    • Mural
    • Timer (phone, watch, computer)



NNgroup. (2022, January 07). What are Contextual Inquiries?. [Video]. YouTube. Available at:


Holtzblatt, K. & Beyer, H. (2016): Contextual Design: Design for Life. Second Edition. Morgan Kaufmann. ISBN: 0128008946.