People sometimes challenge me (politely) with reasons why Contextual Inquiry (CI) interviews can’t work with their specific industry or user population. Usually I go into some variation of my standard explanation with examples related to their situation to illustrate how CI does work, and why. But then the participants in a Contextual Design workshop in Central Eastern Europe raised the issue with me in a new and interesting way.

“CI can only work in the United States”, they said. “You Americans tell strangers on an airplane your life story. We aren’t like that.” And—as they pointed out—they were from former Communist bloc countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Romania.

“We can’t ask a customer to show us what they do and explain why they do it; that’s unacceptable. We have history that works against being comfortable asking and answering in such a way.” (In fact, only one person felt comfortable speaking up on behalf of several class members who were silently thinking this but didn’t want to say it aloud—you know who you are—and thank you again for speaking up!)

Of course they had a valid point about their countries’ culture. So what to do? Decide we should forget about CI in their countries? What about the other nations that have cultural norms seemingly at odds with CI? People are using CD and CI in companies throughout the world; we meet non-Americans all the time who introduce themselves and share stories about how they use the techniques. How are they are able to do it?

I think the answer is that we need to understand the purpose of a CI interview. Its goal is to gather user data, not opinions—to be grounded in what really happens, not what is believed to happen. And this also answers the question Karen raised in her recent post, “How can we innovate by talking to users?” Because we aren’t asking them what they want.

Remember the role the interviewer takes—it’s not that of a traditional interviewer or “inquisitor”. Instead it’s the role of the humble apprentice who is there to learn from the customer who is the master of their work. We don’t ask open-ended questions or questions unrelated to the work—questions like that could be experienced as an inquisition. When you ask questions with the attitude of a humble apprentice learning from the master the customer will respond positively, regardless of what country you are in. From here you can adjust the interview to fit your particular culture.

Here’s one thought about how my clients in Central Eastern Europe might adjust their interview approach. In the U.S. we advise interviewers to look for ways to interact with the user early in the interview by asking questions about what you’re seeing and hearing and uncovering the user’s reasons and intents. By doing this early we’re signaling to the user from the start that this isn’t going to be a traditional question-and-answer interview.

But in some cultures it might work best to start with a lot of looking and listening, and not so much interaction. Then ask focused questions about exactly what the user is doing. Finally, move into a freer interaction after the user has gotten used to the idea of being watched. The cautionary note is that it is easy to stay in the observer only mode; you have to monitor yourself so you do interact with the user.

Thinking about how to best apply CI techniques and fine tuning your approach should happen anywhere in world—including the States. Here at InContext we recognize that you adjust the method and its techniques to work for you. Heck, I used to be an InContext client and I know that’s what I did. But do it consciously, being mindful of the compromises you are making and being sure you are not compromising to the point of making the data you collect unreliable.

What do you think? What are you doing to make Contextual Inquiry interviews work in your culture?