Contextual Inquiry


Interview and observe your customers to learn how they use your product or service, and why they do what they do.

USE THIS PLAY TO...
AND I NEED THIS... WHY?

Stories of failed products are a dime a dozen, and some are the stuff of legend. Products can often fail because they simply aren't what their target customers want and don't stand-up to the pressures of everyday use. Chances are, you don't want to make a similar mistake with your product or service. 

Interviews are a great way to get specific feedback from our customers. But interviews sort of happen in a vacuum. So how do your customers feel about your product or service under the pressures of everyday use? Do they really like that header nav? Is the service request process really that easy to understand?

To get this kind of contextual information, you have to sit with your customer and watch them do their thing. Seeing a customer in their natural habitat allows you to understand a little more about the shoes they walk in, their pain points, what delights and what annoys.

Run the Contextual Inquiry play when you're envisioning something new, or setting out to improve what you've already got. Spending several hours with a customer is a big investment, but it's worth it. And it'll cost less than a failed product.

WHO SHOULD BE INVOLVED?

 2 - 4 team members, preferably people who build and design your product, or operate the service you provide.

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Contextual inquiry is a way to interview and observe people using your product or service.
People

2 - 4

Prep time

60 min

Time

180 min

Difficulty

Moderate

Running the play

Finding a customer to partner with for contextual inquiries usually happens through a contact. Start by asking around your office.

MATERIALS
PREP
FIND A CUSTOMER

First things first: get in touch with someone at the customer company ask if they're willing to be interviewed. Here's the template we use. Feel free to use it (just remember to un-italicize and replace the bolded text!).

Hi there, First Name
 
I'm YourName and I work as a YourJob at YourCompany. I'm reaching out because we're researching how people use Product, and would like to hear from your team. We're offering swag item/t-shirts to anyone we come interview.

Does your team use Product?

We'd love to give your team a chance to voice frustrations, tell us what's working, and help us understand how we can better design Product to suit teams like yours.

If your team isn't using Product, feel free to forward this on to colleagues or friends that are!

What's involved?

We'd like to visit your team to understand what you do day-to-day, see how your team uses Product, and how it fits into your workflow. We typically stay onsite with your team for about 2 hours. We'd like to see where you work, and talk to YourTargetAudience for a few interviews and observation sessions during this time.

Why do it?

Your team helps us determine what we should change, fix, or add to Product. We'll also give everyone involved swag item/gift card to say thanks. 

Interested? Just reply back 

If you're interested, just reply back to this email and I'll work with you directly to go over any questions you have, and get something set up on the calendar. 

Looking forward to hearing from you,

YourName

YourJob

CREATE THE CONTEXTUAL INQUIRY AGENDA

Ask your contact what's possible in terms of looping in their teammates, sitting in on a meeting, etc. Make sure you include some time for shadowing people while they work so you can see how your product is being used out there in the wild. Your schedule for the visit might look something like this:

  • Office tour (10-20 minutes)
  • Group interview with your contact's team (~30 minutes)
  • Attend a standup or other meeting (whatever that duration is)
  • Shadowing and interviewing individuals (1-2 hours)
  • For attendees from your team, a debriefing session later that same day (30 minutes)
PREPARE YOUR INQUIRY TEAM

Consider including people from support, product management, development, design, and/or any other relevant team. Cast a wide net! You'll need a dedicated scribe for the group interview, and pairs of interviewers + scribes for individual interviews. Assign somebody to take charge of the camera, too. 

Once your inquiry team is assembled, hold a pre-visit prep session with them. Use this meeting to agree what you'd like to learn, brief people on what the schedule looks like, and go over the rules of engagement.

CREATE AN INTERVIEW SCRIPT

This can be done on your own or with the collaboration of your inquiry team. Determine what you'd like to know, and how you can ask it. Avoid jargon at all costs, and test your script with a willing coworker to make sure your language makes sense, you're not asking anything twice, and you're not trying to pack too much in.

Be sure to include questions for both group and individual interviews in the script.

SECURE SOME SWAG!

Gather up the appropriate number of keychains, mugs, tshirts... whatever you can get your hands on. You can deliver goodies at the end of your contextual inquiry visit or mail them afterward.

Pro tip

Ask your contact whether it's ok to take pictures. They're great to bring back to your team, but some companies don't allow it.

FOR EXAMPLE...

Atlassian teams follow these rules of engagement when on a contextual inquiry. 

DURING THE VISIT

Channel your inner photojournalist, and document anything particularly interesting with pictures (as long as the organization has agreed it's okay!). You can use phones to do this, but again: that the phone's sole purpose is as an aid to the interview, not an escape route to text or #instagram.

Office tour (20-30 min)

Look at both shared and individual spaces: do most people have multiple monitors? do teams sit together? is it an open office or are there cubicles? do people wear headphones? what kind of stuff is on their desks? how are meeting rooms set up?

One or two guides from the company you're visiting is sufficient. If permitted, take pictures to share with your team afterwards.

Group interview (30 min)

Aside from gathering information, the group interview helps establish a rapport with the people you'll be interacting with during the visit. You can tell them what they can expect, how you'll be interacting, and what you expect from them. It's unusual to have somebody come watch you work, so this is a nice icebreaker as well. 

Individual observation and interviews (30 - 60 min)

Split up your inquiry team: one or two of you to each from the customer company. If going 2:1, determine which of you takes notes, and which facilitates the interview. It's also okay to do 1:1 and take notes yourselves. Which route you go depends on numbers and experience – if somebody isn't comfortable interviewing but wants to observe, they can take notes. (Similarly, if the person being interviewed by you isn't comfortable being video or audio recorded, that's fine.)

For observation, start with something easy to break the ice. Maybe have your interviewee walk you through their familiar workflow: the tools they use, what their day to day looks like, etc. Then, run through your questions for individuals. 

After your questions, ask them to work as if you weren't there. Stress that you're not making any judgement on their proficiency at their job! You're really there to see how they use their tools and what their overall work context is like.

Take notes during this part, and save some time at the end for questioning. Phrase questions like "I noticed you did X when you were Y. Can you tell me about that?" (E.g., "I noticed that you keep your email open in your right-hand screen. Can you tell me about that?")

FOR EXAMPLE...

Here's the format we typically use for group interviews. 

AFTER THE VISIT

Later that day, somewhere other than the customer's office...

Debrief with your inquiry team (30-60 min)

Take at least 30 minutes to go over what you saw, and look for trends. Have each team member report on at least three interesting things they found through their individual interviews. Draw out themes and conclusions from the group interview. 

Don't forget the swag!

If you didn't bring some thank-you gifts to the visit, be sure to send some afterwards. A hand-written note wouldn't go amiss, either. Let your customers know how much you appreciate their time, and that you'll use all that info to make your product better.

Nailed it?

Be sure to run a full Health Monitor session or checkpoint with your team to see if you're improving.

Find your Health Monitor

Variations

SERVICE TEAMS

Run this play when you're embarking on a project to launch a new service or improve an existing one.

Follow-ups

Phew! That was a lot of effort. So make sure it doesn't end up as shelf-ware. Compile your team's notes on a Confluence page and share it with others on your project. (You don't have to make it read like a novel, but make sure others will be able to grok it.)

We also recommend using all this juicy information on your Experience Canvas to help turn the info into actionable insights. And if you've got a Project Poster, be sure to update that as appropriate. Hopefully you were able to validate some assumptions and float a few possible solutions during the visit, so note those.

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