Contextual Inquiry

A user-centered design research method that is conducted within the user’s normal environment. It is a one-on-one observation session of how they complete tasks to solve their problems.

Research Details

Research Type Sample Size Session Time
Qualitative, Hybrid, Generative Small (3 - 5 participants) 1 to 2 hours

When to Use

  1. To learn what problems people are trying to solve.
  2. To learn how they’re solving their problems.
  3. To learn why they want to solve their problems / why they have the problems.
  4. To learn what points of friction they’re encountering.


  1. Identify the users you’d like to speak with.
  2. Write an introduction of you, the goal of the research, and to make the user comfortable and let them know that you want their honest feedback.
  3. Prepare an outline of questions, topics, and tasks you’d like to watch for the session to make sure you cover all your research needs.
  4. Prepare the participants in advance and set clear expectations that you’ll be observing them in their normal environment and workflow. It’s common for participants to try to adjust for your presence.
  5. Make sure you have equipment to record the session. Video is more valuable than audio only.
  6. Observe the participant. Ask probing why questions to understand what they’re to accomplish and what’s motivating them.

Four Principles

  1. Context — Interviews are conducted in the user’s actual workplace. The researcher watches users do their own work tasks and discusses any artifacts they generate or use with them. In addition, the researcher gathers detailed re-tellings of specific past events when they are relevant to the project focus.
  2. Partnership — User and researcher collaborate to understand the user’s work. The interview alternates between observing the user as they work and discussing what the user did and why.
  3. Interpretation — The researcher shares their interpretations and insights with the user during the interview. The user may expand or correct the researcher’s understanding.
  4. Focus — The researcher steers the interaction towards topics which are relevant to the team’s scope.


  1. Make sure you’re focused on one participant at a time, unless their task requires them to interact with multiple people.
  2. Let the participant lead the session. This can be challenging for the moderator and the participant because it’s unfamiliar but you want to see how the participant operates. This is not an interview though you can start the session with an interview.
  3. Make sure you’re in the participant’s actual context and that they haven’t adjusted their work to make researchers more comfortable.
  4. Don’t go over two hours in single session but also don’t rush through your outline. Try to have a follow-up session or gather the remaining topics from another participant, if possible.




  1. Observation Data Capture Template
  2. UX Research Observation Database
  3. Contextual Inquiry Outline Doc
  4. Research Plan

Created by: Joe Steinkamp | Last updated by: Joe Steinkamp