Contextual Inquiry is an ethnographic interviewing technique that mix observation with interviews in real context. This methodology was first theorized by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt who enumerated four basic principles for running this type of research:

– Users should be interviewed in the context where the activity happens.

– It’s important to have an ‘apprentice attitude’ and treat the interviewed as the ‘expert’

– Designers should always verify their assumptions with users

– Contextual Inquiry should make the participants having an informal chat (avoid a set of fixed questions such as questionnaires).

Allan Cooper in About Face 3, revisit this methodology by expanding the application of the methodology to non-business oriented contexts, making the interview shorter in time (1 hour vs 1 day), use smaller design teams (max 3 designers), be less task focused and more goal oriented.

To run successful contextual inquiry session, it’s important to listen to customers, encourage show and tell, access participants previous experience or envision the future using storytelling, avoid technical discussions.


Contextual Inquiry is run without any visible tool to make the interviewed feel more comfortable with expressing his ideas. A hidden audio-recorder usually works quite well (even though the user first need to consent to be recorded). It is possible to use a camera and take pictures only once the user start feeling comfortable in talking about his experience. It’s more effective to ask users to repeat an action and document it after the first set of questions, rather than distract them with a camera when it’s not appropriate.


Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, and Dave Cronin, About Face 3 (Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing Inc, 2007)