Contextual Design

Contextual Inquiry track

Tracked route

For a seminar in University, a team and I conducted Contextual Inquiry as a part of the Contextual Design method. The following case study explains our process.

The Scope

Milaneo is a shopping centre in Stuttgart. It is infamous known for its difficult structure and poor information on directions inside the building. Although there are problems, people keep visiting this place. The question here is, how bad the navigation structure is and what strategies people follow to find their way. In this case the participants are the master in going shopping. The steps we did were the following:

  1. Contextual Inquiry (Method)
  2. The Interview
  3. Interpretation Session and Affinity Diagram
  4. Work Models
  5. Conclusion

Contextual Inquiry

Contextual Inquiry is the first step in the user-centered design process of Contextual Design, developed by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt. To fully understand how humans use products the designer needs to consider the user’s environment and the context of use.

The whole Contextual Design process consists of the following steps: data collection and evaluation with work models, Ideation for new products and design of the products together with users. In this case we focused on the first step.

There are some key aspect you need to follow during a Contextual Inquiry interview:

  1. Be there in the contextual environment
  2. Have a master-apprentice relationship to your interview partner (he knows his work the best; learn from him)
  3. Interpretation is key; ask if your interpretation is right
  4. Focus on your subject and a specific aspect of the work you want to investigate

The Interview

Before the interview we prepared a shopping list with three items. To this list our participants added their own products which they wanted to purchase.

There were only few questions we prepared and asked at the end of each interview. All other questions came up during the interview by observing the participants’ actions.

It has to be said that Contextual Inquiry does not intend any preparations ióf this kind. Because of this modification there is a deviation in the results possible. With this modification we wanted to avoid that our participants buy all items in the same shop.

Contextual Inquiry interview situation

Interview situation

Contextual Inquiry shopping list

Shopping list

Contextual Inquiry track

Tracked route

We had three participants (master) which were each interviewed by one person (apprentice) and recorded on audio. Another person (note-taker) kept himself in the background, tracked the route and saved key moments in pictures.

The interviews took approximately 1,5 hours.

Contextual Inquiry use of map

Use of the map

Contextual Inquiry use of Google Maps

Use of Google Maps

Contextual Inquiry information display

Use of the digital information board

Interpretation Session and Affinity Diagram

In the Interpreation Session we listened to the recorded audios of the interviews and noted every aspect of navigation issues on post-it’s. Aspects that have to be noted are e.g. interpretation of events, use of artifacts, problems and opportunities. Important are also breakdowns in the activity, cultural influences ans design ideas.

Once all that has been noted, it was time to build the Affinity Diagram and conduct all the data.

Therefore all Affinity Notes will be put up on a wall without any order. Now groups will be formed. These groups emerge from the data. You should not define groups beforehand and make the notes fit in these. In this first step there can be many groups – do not be too generalizing yet.

Once you have the groups formed you give each group a title which describes the issue best. Write on blue post-it’s (blue labels) the headline from the point of view (POV) of the user („I do…). In the next step you do the same with the blue labels: Group them together and give the groups pink labels, also from the POV of the user. You will have to repeat this procedure once more so that you end up with a few green labels. These are your core issues.

Contextual Inquiry Affinity Diagram

Affinity Notes

Contextual Inquiry hierarchy sffinity notes

Affinity label hierarchy

As we followed along with these steps, our three green labels are:


Due to the structure it is hard for me to orientate.


The environment of Milaneo has bad influence on my condition.

Information situation

Due to the poor information situation, I use alternative navigation strategies.

Work Models

To get a better understanding of the results and the users’ needs, the gained data has been transferred into fitting Work Models:

  1. Physical Model
  2. Sequence Model
  3. Artifact Model
  4. Decision Point Model
  5. Identity Model


This method has been developed to investigate software issues in an office environment, For our context we had to adjust the method a little bit. Contextual Inquiry also has to be adjusted for the following situations:

  • Discontinous work
  • Group activities
  • Work that is difficult to accompany (steering an excavator)

Contextual Inquiry is helpful to get a deep understanding of products in different environments. It can help to make inefficiencies visible also because questions will come up, which you might have not thought about in advance.

On the other hand this method is intense and needs a lot of effort.


If you run a Contextual Inquiry it is highly recommended to the the procedure with a dummy test in advance. So you can get a feeling for the situation and you might be able to identify possible issues. Also give yourself enough time with for the interview and the evaluation.

Keep your focus in sight so that you collect only the data you need. Considering the Interpretation Session it is important to mention that more post-it’s are better; in the end you can throw out the meaningless ones anyway.

Next Steps

Now that all the data has been collected, a few more steps have to taken in the process of Contextual Design. These steps include:

  1. Visioning
  2. Storyboarding
  3. User Environment Design
  4. Prototyping