Subject with Jig

Contextual Inquiry itself is a form of Ethnography, with a focus on one a work or craft a person does.

This method is about figuring out the details of what it takes to do that work or craft, so we can figure out how we can design better for them.

The nature of this method is an ethnography/user research method, since you are following around a person to learn things by watching them and asking them questions. The context that you will use such a method would probably be if you are trying to learn about a specific experience or job, since its basically designed to handle those.

Description of the Method

Basic description

"Contextual inquiry is an immersive, contextual method of observing and interviewing that
reveals underlying (and invisible) work structure.
" - Martin and Hanington, Universal Methods of design

The main goal of a contextual inquiry is to understand how people do an action, that action usually being work, and why they do it that way. Its basically 2nd wave stuff, kind of a praxis, the specific way these specific types of people do what they do.

Once we can understand that, we can learn from it and base designs around it. This seems like a really good research method for improving a task you do not fully understand yet, since it puts you right on the scene of the person dealing with it. It is kind of a master and apprentice type thing where you are the apprentice, getting as much information as possible from the master.

You walk around and watch what the subject does, like a normal ethnography, but mainly focus on the task at hand, and less on the culture as a whole. 

This is a sample type of ethnography, so its pretty short comparatively, with sessions only lasting hours. Usually multiple sessions should be done, and with different people, but compared to full ethnography studies it really is not that bad.

Actually Doing the method

First thing when doing this method is finding a place to do it, and that should be based of what you are trying to find out. Since usually you know what your designing the task around, it is good to find an expert/usual user of the task at hand, since they are the ones that will probably know the most about it. You usually want to find multiple subjects when doing this.

Like field observations, Once you set up a place and time, make sure to do a run through of everything, just to make sure everything will go smoothly during the observations. Check batteries, run through the script, get all materials such as notebooks and pens ready, etc. 

When observing your subjects, every observer there should have a notebook to take notes. You could as well have a recorder or video camera to take down information that you do not pick up with your notebook. Because of this, it is good to right down times next too stuff you put down in the notebook, so you can match it up to times on the recorder or video camera footage. 

Right after a session, it is good to go over at least somewhat of what just happened, while its still fresh in your head. Same goes with transcriptions, its good to get those done ASAP, so you can add in your own thoughts while you transcribe. 

As the reading we did said, make sure to take notes on the tools they are using, the mental models, the goals they have, as well as the values they may have. These are very important in analyzing the data afterwards, since they really help us understand the whole situation, and gives us design directions.

Positives and negatives


  • Learn the details on how a expert/usual user of a task goes about doing said task
  • See the environment where they do that thing
  • Great for seeing how different people do the same tasks, as well as the similarities. 
  • See what kind of tools they use to do the job
  • Easy to build a mental model off with this research, since its so focused on one thing.


  • People can and most likely will preform for you as you watch them
  • You have find pretty specific people too recruit, making it hard.
  • The analysis of the data can be time consuming.

Tips and Tricks

  • If you don't understand something, speak up about it
  • Try to keep the focus on the task at hand, though don't let that completely stop you from asking questions that somewhat relate to what your talking about, or pushing on things he says.
  • Make sure to note down body language, or thoughts that pop into your mind during the observation. 
  • Do this with as many of the people that do that task on a day to day basis as possible, to get different angles on different situations. Some people may do things completely different then another. 
  • If the subject starts to steer the conversation in another direction, do you best to steer it back to the task your wondering about. 
  • In interviews after contextual inquiry its good to run some of the stuff back to the person to see if they agree, especially the mental model.

Project we used it for

The project we did this for was about reapportions of objects, and me and my partner ended up doing it on a guy that is a metal craft worker at IU, who uses re-appropriated objects every day. The objects we based it on was Jigs, but we did not know that when heading in, we just kind of went to a place we thought we could see a lot of re-appropriations. Because of this, we talked to two different people, a manager, who we talked to first, and a metal worker, who was the center of most of the contextual inquiry.

He was the "master" in this situation, and we followed him around as he showed off a few jigs he has made, and made some things with the jigs as well. This was a very interesting study, and I actually think I learned a lot about metal working and making Jigs to help make them said metal pieces. We later used this data we got from this in the Affinity Diagram project.

Hughes's Corner

This method was pretty useful, and I can see myself using it in the future. It seems like a nice sample of ethnography, and you learn a lot just in a very small amount of time. Overall I liked it. Besides that, really do not have much to say about it.

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