Keeping a Contextual Inquiry from becoming a traditional interview can sometimes be tricky. Remember, the purpose of Contextual Inquiry is to get appropriately detailed data which can be used to understand design implications for your product or solution.

Sometimes it can be difficult—especially when you are just beginning to do Contextual Inquiry interviews—to keep the customer interview on track. The interview starts out great: you’re in the field, you’re with the real user, you’re at the user’s desk, home, or wherever the real work takes place.

Realizing your interview is no longer a Contextual Inquiry

At some point during the interview you realize things have gone awry. You are asking questions and the user is answering you, but you aren’t seeing him or her do their real work practice. The user is either giving you one-word answers, or long explanations about what he or she “typically” does. It feels like your questions aren’t getting very good data, it’s all high level and not detailed. You may not even recognize this has happened until you come back and report to your team what took place in the interview. Then you realize that most of the time you can’t really answer their questions like: “What exactly does the user do when…”, “Did you talk about…”, or “What specific steps does the user take to…?”

How did your interview stop becoming a Contextual Inquiry? You probably didn’t recognize the triggers that signal you’ve slipped out of Contextual Inquiry behavior and reverted to traditional interviewing or questionnaire mode.

Triggers and actions for redirecting the interview

First, it happens to everyone now and then, even those of us who have much experience. Below you’ll find a table listing the triggers you can watch for that signal the interview needs to be redirected back to Contextual Inquiry. Each trigger has a specific action you can take to get the interview back to where it belongs. You might even print the list and slip it into your notebook and take it with you into the field. Whenever you feel the need, take a peek. You’ll find the quality of your interviews will improve immediately.

The relationship has reverted to a questionnaire

Trigger What it means Your action
User says:

  • “Typically I”
  • “Normally I”
  • “In general”
  • “We usually”
  • “In our company”
The user is talking about abstractions, not a concrete experience Redirect to actual work, a specific instance, or a particular artifact.
What to say:

  • “When was the last time you did that?”
  • “Can you show me what you did then?”
  • “Let’s look at the report/document/screen/etc. you used.”
Interview falls into question/response pattern that feels like “I ask/you answer” Return to ongoing work.
What to say:

  • “You were working before and I interrupted you. Please go ahead and go back to it.”
  • “When was the last time you did that? Can you show me what you did then?”
The user has lots of questions for help on the tool You turned into the expert What to say:

  • “What would you do if I weren’t here?”
  • “I can give you some tips later, but I’ll never learn how to improve the product if I don’t understand how you work now.”
The user requests specific features You have a proposed solution but you don’t yet understand the underlying problem Probe to understand what work situation prompted the request. Try to get to an actual situation with an artifact.
What to say:

  • “I want to understand what you need. Please show me what you were doing the last time you wanted that feature.”
You just nod while watching or listening, not asking any questions or requesting a specific example You are assuming an understanding of the work situation without probing. You’ve seen or heard this before and think you already know why the user is doing the same thing. Check your understanding with the user.
What to say:

  • “Let me see if I understand. I think you are doing that because…”
  • “I don’t want to make any assumptions, even if it seems obvious. So, let me check what I’m thinking with you.”
You think to yourself, “No one else would do that. This person is one user in a thousand.” You are throwing away unexpected data. After all, what are the odds you are actually seeing one user in a thousand? Find out more about the situation and why.
What to say:

  • “Let’s stop and talk more about why you do that.”
You have no idea what’s going on so you decide to write it all down and then ask someone back in the office to explain it to you. You’re not finding out what’s really going on by asking the only person who can really tell you — the user Ask the user. You’re not the expert about his or her work, and neither is anyone back at the office.
What to say:

  • “Can you stop a minute? I’m not sure I really understand what you are doing. Please explain it to me.”

If at first you don’t succeed—try, try again

Are these triggers and actions a cure-all, guaranteeing that users will immediately shift from giving you summary data and abstractions and provide low-level details? No. For one thing, none of this will help if the person you are interviewing is not the person who truly does the work you need to study. Keep in mind that users are just like everyone else. We’ve been conditioned—by other interview situations and the rest of our daily lives—to think that no one really wants to hear and see exactly what we do, what we think, and why.

As you continue to redirect the interview, you’ll be in essence training the user that you do want the details. Most of them will soon understand what you are after and start giving you details without being prompted. A few never will, and that’s no reflection on them or you. Just accept that part of your job is helping them give you the information you need, even if you have to redirect them over and over again. With these triggers and actions, you can improve the data you get while in the field.