Practical tips for conducting contextual inquiries

Contextual inquiry is an ethnographic research method that has a history with interactive and also product design. What makes it different from a regular interview and different from normal observation is that you’re observing a user in the context of their using the product you’re studying—and you’re asking them questions to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Futhermore, you’re collecting data (though notes and recordings) that you can synthesize later to find themes, patterns, and design opportunities. (More resources at the end of the post.)

Practical Tips for Conducting Contextual Inquiries

  • Confirm logistics with your interviewee. Ask them about parking, getting into a place, phone numbers, etc. Be sure to confirm directions and time. Have phone numbers and addresses handy as you’re heading to the place in case you get lost. Budget in time to get lost, so that you still arrive early. In the conversations before your interview, don’t forget to…
  • Prepare your interviewee(s). Let them know ahead of time what to expect from a contextual inquiry. Set the stage that this is more than just shadowing, and more than an interview, and that you want to ask a lot of questions as you’re observing. Ask beforehand whether you’ll be able to record or take photos. And since you’ll have thought this out enough to explain it to someone else beforehand, you’ll…
  • Be prepared. Figure out your focus and what kinds of information you want to get out of the contextual inquiry. Write out the questions, and print them out, so you can use it as a roadmap to make sure key areas aren’t missed. Define your roles and…
  • Designate a driver and a notetaker. One person can focus on the person, and the other can focus on capturing the data (notetaker keeps on top of the roadmap of questions). When you’re on your own, you miss a lot because you’re worried about taking things down, so you forget to…
  • Always ask “Why?” This is a hard habit to acquire, but it’s the root of contextual inquiry. The driver should be asking “Why?” nearly every other question, and the notetaker should watch out for when they’re missing a “Because” for any action. We’re trying to understand why people are doing what they’re doing, which adds a level of insight if you…
  • Use all 5 senses. Look around, eavesdrop. What sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactility, feelings appear in the space or the experience? Take note of your gut, and your feelings in the space as well. These are things that may not be captured even if you…
  • Bring a digital camera, a video camera, an audio recorder. Get as much photo/audio/video as you can. The audio recorder comes in handy if they say no to video, or if you’re in a situation where video is too intrusive. Which reminds me…
  • Don’t forget tripod, extra batteries, extra memory cards, and your smartphone. Charge batteries and empty memory cards the night before. Your smartphone doubles as camera and maybe even video camera in a pinch, but you’ll probably still need to…
  • Use the almighty pen and paper. Bring extra of those as well. When all your tech equipment fails, or if you’re in a situation where you can’t record anything, you’ll be writing as furiously as possible to capture data. For paper or notebook, think handheld and easily accessible. You’ll also want to…
  • Collect artifacts. Papers, handouts, samples of whatever is in the environment that your interviewee or those they interact with are using. If you can’t take along a physical sample, ask if you can take a photo instead. You’ll probably want to…
  • Wear clothes with pockets. You don’t want to be digging around in your bag for something as you…
  • Go with the Flow. Nothing ever goes as expected — either for your interviewee or for you. So go with it, as long as you remember to…
  • Always ask “Why?”

As soon as you can after a contextual inquiry, sit down with your team and DEBRIEF. Take notes of top-of-head themes, design ideas, important observations, feelings. You’ll record and code all of your data and review all of your media later, but these initial impressions are important because your gut reactions tend to get lost as you become more and more familiar with the space and the people and the data.

Some Contextual Inquiry Resources:

Changing the lens (literally)

In class we often talk about the notion of shifting the lens through which you look at the world.  We do this in a number of ways, often (when people are involved) centered around empathy.  I think we have all developed frameworks of sorts to get out of our routines and approach situations from multiple viewpoints.  This ability is central to the problem (identifiers) solvers skill set.

Yesterday, I changed the lens through which I see quite literally.  I bought a new camera.

I have lots of cameras, small ones, big ones, old ones, plastic ones, metal ones, film ones, digital ones…  but this is the first new one I’ve bought in ages.  What’s interesting is that I’m suddenly overcome by the notion to go outside and start shooting with it.  My mind is wandering down the alleys of Austin, snapping pictures left and right.  So, the purchase of a physical object is making me want to go out into the world and ‘see’ new things.  The object, just sitting on my desk, is begging me to change pace, to ditch the routine, to move…. to move!

How can we capture these types of feelings in other products and services we create?  What are some other examples of products that give you these types of feelings?

How can we do this without having to purchase a product?  I mentioned earlier that I have certain frameworks that I use to try to do this mentally, but how do we make these frameworks more readily accessible, so they can sit on my desk and inspire me to go look at the same building I walk by everyday but see it for the first time?

And finally, how can we make these feelings last?  This camera will inspire me for a while… but the truth is that at some point down the road, it’ll be just another object I toss in my bag, it will go unnoticed sitting on my desk, or when I go out I’ll simply forget it at home.  How can we capture that emotion and stretch it to the life of the product, and beyond?

Temporary Housing Solutions

I’ve been finding some interesting ideas for creative temporary housing solutions online.

Aggregation of several different temporary housing solutions.

Shopping cart and a house.

Sleeping bag and a coat.

If you could create a housing solution that helped those experiencing homelessness but was also something compelling that a camper might buy and use, then you could have a revenue stream for a good cause.  What I’m thinking about is a product that someone on the street could make, use, and also sell.  It could also be a way for a person experiencing homelessness to get a job and might provide quite a compelling marketing campaign around the story of the product.

What other temporary housing solutions are out there?

My First Quarter at AC4D

The following is my attempt to summarize and reflect on my first eight weeks studying at the Austin Center for Design.

The great:

  • Amazing students with varied talents working together.
  • Experienced professors (who still work in their field) sharing insights and leading discussions.
  • Designers working on real problems (homelessness, sustainability, education).

The difficult:

  • Big time commitment.
  • Learning to be okay with failure.
  • So far, more review than new.

First the great.Without hesitation I think any designer or creative person looking to make a difference should attend the school. The people you will meet and the process you will learn will inspire you and drive you for years.

The students are inspiring. I’m reminded of my sophomore year in college when I started to feel normal. I was finally around people who had similar passions and desires and dreams. When a small network rejects mediocrity an explosive inspirational energy is created that feeds itself.

I feel a similar energy forming here around social problems.

Now the hard.I did not anticipate the time commitment required to attend school. I’ve gone before, but I did not factor in all the new activities and responsibilities I have now (consulting, marriage, startups). I kind of figured it would be like adding one more client to my workload, but really it’s like three new clients.

I use to unwind by learning new stuff or building things or playing with friends. Now my days are filled of client work, nights with class, and the weekend with both. The rest of my life is spent scrambling to complete assignments or attempting to enjoy a relaxing meal with Maura.

I do think it’s possible to work full-time and attend AC4D, but you just can’t do anything else. No side projects, no overtime, no traveling, no going above and beyond at work, nothing but school (or face the consequences).

The consequence is failure. I have had many jobs and worked on a smorgasbord of projects. With the exception of a few scheduling slips, I have delivered what I said I would, when I said I would. I am knowledgable and dependable and deliver exceptional work to my clients. This is why I have more work than I can handle at a healthy rate.

Remember when I said school was a client? That’s how I first felt. I could do not let them down, they were counting on me. Very quickly a time crunch made me rethink this stance and I realized, “I’m the client. I’m paying to be here. I’m here to learn as much as I can, not to deliver perfect work on time.”

For better or worse, this has been my coping mechanism for the past couple months. Every week I am forced to make compromises on what to work on. Client work is at the top of that list, then any team project for school involving other students, then the projects I’m most interested in, lastly the projects I’m not into. Unfortunately this means the projects I don’t want to do (admittedly probably the most academically stretching for me) are the ones that don’t get done.

It’s also frustrating to feel rushed in everything you do. Working thoughtfully and meticulously is near impossible when there is an overflowing dam of work backing up behind you.

My final bitch is that the first quarter consisting of design theory, contextual research, and prototyping felt like a lot of review to me. This won’t be the case for most people. I guess I’m unique in that Jon, the director of the school, taught a large portion of my undergrad program. (So far this quarter is already much different.)

In summary.I love school. It is great and difficult.

My goal for the next eight weeks is to spend more time reflecting in posts like this. I would also like to identify one project a week to be meticulous about, and attempt to do something for each assignment.

(Thanks to Alex for inspiring me to take the time to write this out.)

Visual Design in Practice

Thanks to Jen Sukis, AC4D got a crash course in visual design basics.

Besides learning what not to do in visual design, we learned that visual design, like all design, can only be learned by doing.

The assignment – take a raw Photoshop file filled with a myriad of shapes and make a good design.

What follows after the raw Photoshop file are my two creations:

When products create a new ecosystem

he last several weeks in India have been very insightful and busy. There is a lot to write about when I get some time. This place is full of energy, stories of survival, entrepreneurship and wonders. Product development here will be successful if that product fosters a new ecosystem. It is even better when the same product helps tackle wicked problems (in the context of AC4D). The following product is a great example of a truly green product that also gives thousands of low income families employment – a clay disposable cup. Several places have started serving beverages in this.


Jennifer Shine Dyer: Social media&healthcare

I heard about Jennifer Shine Dyer via Leah McDougald’s tweets from TedxColumbus, where Dyer was presenting.

Dyer is a pediatric endocrinologist (who went into med school with a literature and journalism background). She is currently using social media to provide support to her teenage diabetic patients between visits, since diabetes never sleeps. It was a bold step when she moved from fax to email communications, and now many teens use texts and Facebook and tweets more often than email — they think “only old people use email.”

Here is a good audio interview with Dyer about the future of the patient experiencemeeting them where they are instead of forcing them to play by old standards, looking at integrating the technology they are already using to enhance the services we need to provide. This not only helps her patients, it also reconnected Dyer with what she loved about the medical profession (direct patient contact) in the first place. She also touches on privacy and HIPA concerns in the interview.

Additionally, Dyer went further to develop an iPhone app to send automated, personalized texts. The doctor needs an iPhone, but the patients just need texting capabilities. She talks about all this in her TedXColumbus presentation:

(Good storytelling in the beginning: 1 patient//2 paths. One path where she took her insulin regularly in her 20s and the other where she didn’t: Paris vs. blindness. Also good storytelling in the “how to use the app” with iphone wireframe/screenshots told through a narrative.)

And for those interested in food and childhood obesity, her full bio also says she is “developing a medical program in connection with the ongoing ‘Food is Elementary’ 28-week nutrition literacy program for young children through a non-profit organization Local Matters…in an effort to prevent childhood obesity progression at the community level.” Dunno much more than that, but you can ask her more about it!

Dyer’s online @EndoGoddess.

I’m loving:

  • the use of social media to “meet people where they are” in providing a social service such as healthcare.
  • the user-centered thinking behind this kind of story — from both medical provider and patient sides
  • the collaboration between Dyer and a programmer who contacted her through Twitter; and that they leveraged existing software and online tools to build the app
  • the “design thinking” they went through without their ever having a Designer involved.
  • AND the enormous opportunities we have as designers if we can collaborate with people, experts in their own fields — who either provide or benefit from these services

How to finish baking ideas

Above is my video recap of our Interaction Design Prototyping studio class. The goal of the studio is to introduce us to methods and processes of rapid prototyping in order to effectively communicate ideas – a critical step toward successful implementation.

Haven’t had much background in a lot of what we did in the studio, my sketch, pitch, wireframes, and screencast aren’t always fully baked. But along the way, I’ve picked up a lot of methods to finish baking them. For anyone else who’s also starting out, I’ve also found the following resources particularly helpful:

Visual thinking: models: media strategy: brand:

My favorite blog of all-time for anything from visual thinking to social media to prototype to public speaking to being productivity to…etc:

Really excited to apply these newly developed skills to quarter 2 with our Arch project.