ew days back (at AC4D), there was a discussion about field studies for design research and synthesis. We talked for a bit about contextual inquiry. In a nutshell, this is a process of going to “the research field” and observing the subject and environment first hand to gain insight about the problem that is being investigated. We were talking about an example of doing contextual inquiry for a tooth brush company who want to understand the benefits of using an electric brush and in turn, use that data to design a near ideal tooth brush. While formulating the steps for doing the contextual inquiry, the following steps were outlined/discussed as a guideline –
- Introduce yourself
- Get familiar with the field (in this case, home of some participant)
- Ask to see the place where action takes place (in this case, bathroom)
- Observe the action (brushing)
- Observe the surroundings to make meaningful inferences
- Talk, rinse and understand.
In general, I understand the value of doing field work. I think it is the best way to observe somebody in action and understand the hows and whys of any problem. For instance, if I am designing an information portal for some farmers in India, I need to be there to understand the needs so that I can solve the problem for them. However, the process of doing contextual inquiry is something that I don’t entirely agree upon. Apparently, the process involves shortlisting candidates for participatory research through some screening and then schedule an appointment with them for a field study (contextual inquiry). Then, at that fixed time, you go and observe. I think this procedure works only well in some cases like
- It does not make people conscious
- It does not induce any disruption in their activities
Doesn’t me observing somebody brush his/her teeth make them conscious? If I am using this as a datapoint to derive information to provide to my client/use in my research, this data point has a level of uncertainty and no longer pure. For this study, I would rather go to an airport or hotel and engage into conversations in the restrooms with people who are brushing their teeth by connecting with them in the angle of a fellow traveler. I think there can be more information from that exercise. In general, I think this “text book” definition of contextual inquiry ticks me off. It cannot be this procedural. For instance, if my trying to understand the life of a potter, I should become potter and spend time with him/her making pottery rather than asking that person to make pottery in front of me. I brought this up in the discussion and the counter statement was, “well, if you just watch people, your understanding of the problem is based on only your view points”. Why? I ask. If I observe enough people, then can’t I find patterns and generalize? Well, isn’t eliminating biases by talking to more people a method in contextual inquiry and participant research?