Info & Interaction Design, Contextual Inquiry

Mick McQuaid



But first … Project Focus

Recap, Last week

  • Audiences
  • Epochs
  • Bad design (I skipped a favorite)

Hotel showers

More recap

Make your own triangle, showing two “green” bubbles, one for where you are now and one for where you aspire to be

Interaction Design

  • Contextual inquiry
  • Personas
  • Scenarios
  • Prototypes

Contextual Design

But before we consider contextual design …

Let’s consider the broader question of how you study users

Three ways to study users

  • Contextual inquiry
  • Ethnography
  • Participatory design

Contextual inquiry

  • Radical changes
  • Short time frame
  • In the workplace
  • Relies on familiar work structure
  • Requires least client time and designer time

Participatory design

  • Incremental changes
  • Empowering users
  • Medium client time and designer time
  • Improved user acceptance


  • Radical changes in exotic workplaces
  • Requires the most client time and designer time
  • Usually used for poorly understood work environments
  • Designers immerse themselves in the work environment
  • E.g., Barley’s epic study of radiologists

Contextual Inquiry

Contextual Inquiry Process

  • Prepare for workplace interviews / observations
  • Conduct workplace interviews / observations
  • Interpret workplace interviews / observations


Prepare for the interview

Who should you interview?

  • Each team member should interview at least two people for this assignment
  • Consider roles not titles
  • Consider context
  • Consider the work you will support
  • Consider who all is involved
  • Consider where information comes from

What contexts should be sampled?

  • Consider different work and social contexts
  • Strive for variety
  • Could use differences in productivity as a basis (careful!)

Interview style

  • Intermittent work (most common)
  • Uninterruptible work
  • Extremely long work
  • Mobile Work
  • Extremely focused work


  • Distance
  • Resistance
  • Confidentiality and security
  • Time commitment (two hours if you can get it)
  • Cultural issues
  • Dress
  • Spacing of interviews (as tight as possible)
  • Coordinating with interpretation sessions
  • Lost interviews

How do you get interviews?

  • Vendors
  • Sales
  • Sales support
  • Management
  • Tech support
  • User advocate
  • Advertise

Share interview techniques

  • Two interviewers
  • Avoid recording (unless on a platform like Zoom)
  • Avoid Zoom (try to be live in the workplace)
  • Don’t fear silence
  • Use work artifacts if live

Conduct the interview


  • Work from a checklist and a script
  • Deal with confidentiality
  • Give an introductory talk
  • Give an opportunity for unexpected issues


  • Introduce yourself
  • Reinforce your focus
  • Set expectations
  • Defer to the user as expert
  • Describe confidentiality policy (maybe again)
  • Get permission to record (if you want to record)
  • Deal with opinions about tools or companies
  • Explain that interruptions are interesting
  • Look for opportunities to do contextual inquiry

Continued procedure

  • Transition to work focus
  • Observe and discuss
  • Be nosy
  • Take notes (avoid using a laptop)
  • Know what to take notes about!

What to take notes about

  • The user’s role
  • The user’s responsibilities
  • The user’s communication types
  • The user’s organization of physical space
  • The user’s artifacts (get copies if possible)
  • Breakdowns in the user’s work
  • What works and what doesn’t

Interview activities

  • Share design ideas stimulated by events
  • Draw the physical space
  • Take photos (if you get permission)

Wrap up

  • Summarize what you learned, check your high-level understanding
  • Ask about pet issues
  • Give tips about system use (avoid doing so earlier)
  • Thank the user and give a gift if possible
  • Be sure you followed Holtzblatt’s tips in Tables 4-1 through 4-5!

Views of the CI interview

Interpret the interviews


  • Today usually done via FigJam or Miro instead of on a wall with post-its
  • Should happen 48 hours after the interviews (or sooner)
  • You should NOT talk to your teammates (or anyone else) about the interviews before the interpretation session
  • You should never do it alone
  • Must be synchronous
  • Usually takes all day

Interpretation session steps overview

  1. Create affinity notes from your atomic observations
  2. Add 500 affinity notes to the diagram
  3. Organize the affinity notes by similarity
  4. Add the bottom level of labels above the affinity notes
  5. Add the temporary top level of labels and reorganize the bottom level of labels and affinity notes to fit them
  6. Remove the temporary top level labels
  7. Add the middle level of labels
  8. Add the top level of labels

First steps

  • Write affinity notes in the first person
  • Use words that mean the same to everyone
  • Let the meaning emerge from the groups instead of predefining
  • Reorganize hard-to-label groups rather than wrestling with unsatisfying label wording

Bottom level of affinity labels

  • Start when you can’t keep track of the affinity notes
  • Give them design relevance
  • Highlight distinctions rather than trying to bring groups together

Temporary top level of affinity labels

  • Helps you move the affinity notes around into positions closer to their final positions
  • Only half a dozen temporary top labels
  • Remove them when this step is complete

Middle level of affinity labels

  • Highlight highlevel work concepts
  • Steps in work
  • Communication strategies in work
  • Tool use
  • Organizational structure

Top level of affinity labels

  • Describe the key issues relevant to the design
  • Inform the behavior patterns that will be the basis for personas
  • Any break in the chain from interview to key issues jeopardizes the persona milestone, coming up next

Example of the relationship between a top level label and those below it

Different views of the process

Activity: Fake an interview

  • Spend the next half hour interviewing each other in pairs
  • Pretend you’re a subject matter expert in your project
  • Pretend you’ve never met
  • Do both sides in the interview
  • If you’re a group of three, do two on one; if four, break into two pairs


Bannon, Liam, Jeffrey Bardzell, and Susanne Bødker. 2018. “Reimagining Participatory Design.” Interactions 26 (1): 26–32.
Beyer, Hugh, and Karen Holtzblatt. 1999. “Contextual Design.” Interactions 6 (1): 32–42.
Holtzblatt, Karen, Jessamyn Burns Wendell, and Shelley Wood. 2005. Rapid Contextual Design: A How-to Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.
Spinuzzi, Clay. 2000. “Investigating the Technology-Work Relationship: A Critical Comparison of Three Qualitative Field Methods.” In IPCC/SIGDOC ’00: Proceedings of IEEE Professional Communication Society International Professional Communication Conference and Proceedings of the 18th Annual ACM International Conference on Computer Documentation, 419–32. Piscataway, NJ, USA: IEEE Educational Activities Department.



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