Contextual Interviews: Context is Everything

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” ~ Socrates

Contextual interviews are a technique widely used in user experience research and user-centered design. Sometimes referred to as contextual inquiry, these structured sessions revolve around a one-to-one interaction between the researcher and the user and are conducted in the environment where the user typically works or accesses the system in question. The researcher observes users completing everyday tasks and takes note where there are points of 😬 distress or 😄 delight!

These types of interviews are a blend of observation and dialogue. They allow the UX researcher to examine the physical setting and assess specific product usage as it relates to location, environment, and surroundings. Ultimately, they provide the team with added direction in defining project requirements or refining existing processes. For more information, read this excellent article.

Contextual interviews are a popular method in the field of User Experience and are widely used. They’re also extremely helpful! But, will this method always work? (spoiler: 🙁)

Big Plans

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” ~ Lao Tzu

We recently hit the road with a national 🚛 truck rental company to help determine how (if?) their mechanics and technicians were utilizing the company’s on-demand instructional video content. Our goal was to find out why the videos weren’t getting more views and attempt to understand any contributing factors. We also wanted to find out when, how, and why they were accessing the videos and what we could do to encourage usage. Each of these questions seemingly required 👓 observing the technicians in their 👩‍🔧 work environment. Logical conclusion = Contextual interviews. 

[ed note: I’ll stop with the emojis. #promise]

The plan was for two of us to sit with a technician while he/she worked and have them walk us through their normal process of accessing the content. One researcher would conduct the interview while the other took notes. We were also accompanied by a corporate representative to help pick up on any verbiage or jargon that might arise during our conversation.

We scheduled thirty minutes with each participant and had a general outline of what we wanted to accomplish. We were set to hit the road and visit three states, 12 locations, and interview approximately fifty users. 

Reality Bites

“My commitment is to truth, not consistency” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Above is one of my favorite quotes and a represents a longstanding principle in my approach to User Experience Design + Research. The point is to keep an open mind and follow where the experience takes you. If you have any expectation of the outcome, you’re increasing your bias in finding the truth. 

It’s essentially letting you know that ‘it’s OK to change your mind’! It’s OK to realize that your plan must change due to circumstances. And in fact, you are being paid for your critical thinking! Follow the truth and forget what you think you know. 

Within a few minutes of the first interview, it became clear that the environment was not well suited for the interviews. Why?

  • It’s loud
  • And dirty
  • And hot (This was August)
  • And dirty

These are large garages with multiple bays and pits covered in grease. At any time, 6–10 enormous vehicles are in the building — many running for diagnosis. Music is blaring. The intercom intermittently squawks. Technicians are constantly on the move; helping each other, fetching tools, and logging their progress at one of the two (or three) computer carts in the shop. Shift leaders, fuel pump operators, and drivers can be found coming in and out.

  • It’s busy
  • And chaotic
  • And did I mention hot?

The environment is extremely distracting. It’s difficult to hold a conversation with this level of noise and almost impossible to ignore the constant interactions and interruptions. 

During the second interview, we began to feel we weren’t getting honest, unfiltered responses with co-workers and management in such proximity. Any criticism or negative feedback was given very cautiously. We didn’t want the technicians to feel they couldn’t speak freely. 

The interviews also took away from real work. These men and women need to hit very tight repair time estimates and they take great pride in their work and their team. They watch the clock and are extremely aware of their surroundings. To idly stand by while the remaining team members worked made the technicians feel noticeably uncomfortable. 

This presented a problem. 

After three attempts, we decided it was time to abandon the idea and find a better solution for the remaining interviews. Would we get useful data if we went with a more traditional interview style? 

Switching Gears

“If you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell

The short answer is yes. There we several advantages to taking these interviews in a private room rather than in the shop. And changing our approach early gave us ample time to refine our process. This course correction allowed for some noticeable benefits: 

  • Respite from the heat
  • Privacy from peers and management
  • Quiet environment
  • Sanctioned break with no time on the clock being used

We were still able to have technicians walk us through their process and we would occasionally step out to the shop floor if they needed to show us a specific action. We received a greater level of detail concerning the platform by creating a quiet, welcoming environment. And we learned a lot.

I had no idea that a 7th injector cleaning on a Volvo D13 was so intricate!

Here’s the thing. I don’t know a damn thing about truck repair. I don’t even change my own oil. But, I like people. And I like to hear what they have to say. We may have lost out on some of the behavioral data by removing ourselves from the work environment, but what we gained in user insight more than makes up. 

The lesson is: Don’t let the tool define your process or hinder your progress. Contextual interviews are a great tool to have in your arsenal, but don’t insist on using them when the circumstances dictate otherwise.

About the Author

Andrew Jacobs

Andrew Jacobs is Sr. User Experience Architect at Williams Forrest. You can find him on Twitter or Medium.