Often teams are excited about using Contextual Design, and want to jump right in and start interviewing users. This approach is like getting in a taxicab and saying, “I’m not sure where I’m going, but let’s drive around for a while and I’ll try to figure it out.” A design effort is much more effective when the team knows what it’s trying to accomplish and which kinds of users are important.

Focus setting gets the project off to the right start

Design projects can be broken into distinct phases, only some of which involve Contextual Design (CD) activities.

  1. Startup. Set the focus, staff the project and set resource commitment expectations, arrange customer interviews, and kick off the project
  2. Investigation (CD). Perform contextual interviews and interpretation sessions
  3. Consolidation (CD). Consolidate the affinity and work models
  4. Invention and System Design (CD). Vision, storyboard, and create the User Environment Design
  5. Testing (CD). Create paper mockups, perform paper prototype interviews, and iteratively refine the design concepts and User Environment Design
  6. Refining and Documenting Design Concepts. Convert the design concepts into a detailed, high-fidelity user interface design, and document the appearance and behavior of each part of the design
  7. Release Planning. Work with product managers to prioritize design requirements with other product requirements, and create a plan for rolling out the new design over a series of coherent product releases
  8. Development Support. Create specifications for each release that reconcile the portions of the new design being implemented with any existing functionality, and which accommodate development restrictions regarding feasibility

Successful completion of each of these phases is critical to the success of a design project. However, since each phase builds upon the outcome of the one before it, the initial startup phase is crucial to success in all of the other phases. In fact, the single most effective way to increase the odds of project success is to hold a productive focus setting meeting.

Focus setting reveals stakeholder expectations and determines timeline for Contextual Design activities

A meeting for focus setting is a necessary first step in every design project, especially those using Contextual Design techniques. It must be done before finalizing the project plan, and should be held one to two weeks before the start of contextual interviews. It usually takes about half a day, and requires the participation of all decision makers and project champions. Sometimes it is also appropriate for the project lead or a person with extensive knowledge of customer connections to be at the meeting. Usually the actual design team members become involved during the project kick-off meeting. The purpose of the focus setting meeting is for the project stakeholders to discuss and agree on the scope and intent of the project. The first step is:

  • Clearly understand and agree upon the goals for the project

These goal choices determine the time that will be needed for the Contextual Design portions of the project. Tactical projects require fewer user interviews and fewer consolidation and design activities, resulting in a smaller timeline. Strategic projects require more user interviews and more consolidation and design activities, and have a correspondingly larger timeline. Of course, timeline is one of the major factors affecting the project cost.

Focus setting plans contextual interviews for maximum impact

Next, the focus setting participants perform the following steps:

  • Determine which user activities the Contextual Inquiry will concentrate on, and decide on the distribution of the contextual interviews among roles that perform those activities
  • Identify the important characteristics of all the companies, determine which ones are candidates for contextual interviews, and then choose which companies to visit and which roles to interview at each of those companies

The result of these discussions is an allocation of interviews between roles and among companies. In the interest of containing costs and timeline, it is important to do enough interviews to get the data needed to satisfy the project goal, but no more interviews than necessary. The key is to make sure that each interview yields the maximum amount of value for the project. This is done by allocating the interviews so that they encompass the broadest variation of work done by the organizations chosen.

The mix of roles identified and visited during the contextual interviews will affect the scope and quality of the design results. If the interviews cover a broad variation in work practice, the data will yield a wider perspective and lead to greater design possibilities.

Lack of focus setting leads to problems

When focus setting is not done, there is confusion about what results will be expected of the project in order for it to be deemed a success. The team loses time during the project trying to figure out what the project is supposed to cover.

Lack of focus setting also increases the difficulty of completing the interviewing phase efficiently. Unless the interview mix is chosen explicitly, to maximize the value of each interview, it is unlikely that the interviews will be set up with the appropriate companies and roles. There are several common pitfalls when interview targets are chosen on an ad-hoc basis:

  • Too many interviews for one role. This leads to redundant data and a collection of data that is too narrow, which negatively impacts the scope and quality of the design. In one project I was involved in, almost all of the interviews were with the same role. Not only did the team get redundant data, but we were also left feeling that there were a lot of holes in our understanding of the roles and responsibilities involved in the work. In fact, we had to put investigating an important role on the growing list of areas that were not covered during our interviews – leading to the discouraging feeling that too much was being put off to “the next CD project.”
  • Interviews at too few companies. This results in little variation in work practice and limited design data. Too many interviews at one company may skew the project to just one organization.
  • Large quantities of interviews. This increases the project costs unnecessarily, is exhausting for team members, and can also lead to difficulties completing CD activities such as interpretations and models. One team I know of did over 70 interviews – but had little design data to show for it. With so many interviews to do, interviewers started just doing individual write-ups of what they had seen. With no interpretation sessions, the team did not capture the interview data into work models, and also missed the opportunity to fully leverage the expertise and different perspectives embodied in their cross-functional team.

Keep in mind that the interviews always turn up new insights into the work you are trying to support, and to the roles and responsibilities involved. Sometimes it is appropriate after the first few interviews to revisit the focus, and adjust it based on the data collected so far. Often it becomes interesting to see some roles not planned for initially, and the mix of the interviews is adjusted. That is why it is best to only set up a few interviews at a time – you can adjust the course of the investigation as needed.

Good focus setting dramatically increases the chances of project success

Focus setting is a critical part of every Contextual Design project. It lays the foundation for an efficient, high-quality design effort. It articulates the project scope, the work that the team will be doing and the level of resource commitment involved, the limitations of what is being attempted, and the timeline. It makes explicit the intent of the project, the primary user roles and activities, and the major work practice variations of interest. It produces an outline for the number and type of interviews, and a list of companies to contact.

Once focus setting is complete, the project can move forward with confidence.