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What is Ethnographic Interview/Contextual Inquiry?

Ethnographic interviewing is a type of qualitative research that combines immersive observation and directed one-on-one interviews. In anthropology, ethnographic researchers spend years living immersed in the cultures they study in order to understand behaviors and social rituals of an entire culture. Ethnographic interviewers apply this technique on a micro level to understand the behaviors and rituals of people interacting with individual products.

Contextual Inquiry is an ethnographic interviewing technique that is used to gather qualitative data about users and their goals. The interviewer goes to the user and interviews them at the place where the user uses the product and/or does the work under study. The idea is to interview users in their natural setting, while they are performing their tasks, asking them questions about what they are doing and why (when necessary) along the way. Observing users as they perform activities and questioning them in their environments can bring important details of the behaviors to light.

(Adapted from About Face 2.0 page 46)


Before Conducting Contextual Inquiry

- Define target interviewee audience

To insure that we are hearing from representative groups across Sakai campuses, we have put together the following matrix of attributes that represents the range of diversity that we hope to cover. To determine what qualifies as "representative," it is important to use behavioral and demographic attributes to distinguish between different types of users. For example, we would want to talk to instructors who is using Tests & Quizzes for the 1st time to put together activities for a large introductory lecture course as well as someone who has used Tests & Quizzes for many years and who is teaching a small seminar-type of class. We would most likely find the goals and needs of these two types of instructors to be different.

User attributes that are important to cover







Type of Institution

Carnegie Classification

Number of undergrad/grad







Activity Creator

  • Instructor
  • Teaching Assistant
  • Dept/Program Support Staff Member
  • Educational Technologist/Instructional Designer

Activity Taker

  • Student

Activity Evaluator

  • Instructor
  • Teaching Assistant



Class Structure

Small class
(e.g., upper-division seminar)

Large class
(e.g., introductory lecture)

Class with multiple sections

Class with multiple instructors


Class Delivery 

Face-to-Face Only

Face-to-Face and Online

Online Only



Teaching Experience (Activity Creator/Evaluator)


1-3 years 

3-5 years

5-10 years

10+ years

Level of Study (Activity Taker)



Type of Activity

High Stakes

Low Stakes

Comfort Level with Computer Technologies

Very Uncomfortable



Very Comfortable


Comfort Level with Sakai

Very Uncomfortable



Very Comfortable

Academic Subject/Major





Professional schools

Sakai Tool(s) Used


Tests & Quizzes




- Develop interviewee recruitment plan

Using the user attributes defined above, a diverse set of user types can be developed. Different institutions participating in our user interview research project can then select those types of users that they think match real users they have easy access to. As participating institutions begin to think about whom to recruit locally, please add your users to a Google Spreadsheet (we'll invite all confirmed interviewers to view this spreadsheet, which we are making private as the matrix becomes more descriptive--all previous entries have been moved there).

- Schedule interview

- Develop interview protocol and contextual inquiry guide

An interview protocol is used to structure and run an interview. It contains:

  • How long the interviews should take
  • An introduction to the interviewee
  • Privacy and confidentiality rules and a statement to be signed by interviewee
  • Questions to ask the interviewee
    For this project:
  • Interviews should take one hour
  • Have the interviewee read and sign a consent form (template provided)
  • Refer to the Contextual Inquiry Guidelines for examples of questions to ask

A contextual inquiry guide contains general questions and a checklist of items to keep in mind during the user meeting.

Some questions may be asked directly, but many others will just represent general lines of inquiry that aim to capture the different patterns of behaviors that a design must address. Additionally, interviewers should be open to following other paths as dictated by the work performed by the interviewee. Although the meeting begins with a short traditional interview portion, once you transition into CI mode, think of it as a partnership formed between the interviewer and interviewee in order to create a dialog. The goal is for the interviewer to interfere with the interviewee's work as little as possible, blend into the surroundings, and ask questions when necessary to understand not only the user's opinions and experiences, but also his or her motivations and context.

This document should contain:

  • Intro reminder
  • A goal statement for the research you can refer to that can help you keep focus during the CI
  • A list of demographic questions and ice breakers you want to start with
  • A list of general questions for the traditional interview portion of the CI
  • Areas you want to make sure you learn about as you observe users doing their work
  • Wrap-up reminder

- Assemble interview team

Ideally, the interview team will consist of two people: one note-taker and one interviewer. The interviewer engages the interviewee by asking questions and may take light notes. The note-taker takes detailed notes of the entire interview. The note-taker may take notes by hand or via laptop. To be able to share notes with others, an electronic document will be necessary. The interview team can optionally create an audio recording of the interview for later reference. Transcription of these notes is too time consuming to be widely recommended.

On Day of Contextual Inquiry


  • 2 copies of user consent form (one copy for you and one for the user)
  • Pens
  • Laptop or pad of paper
  • Folder to put all user's papers and notes

Keep in mind the following general best practices during the interview (from About Face 2.0, p. 50-52):

  • Interview where the interaction happens
  • Avoid a fixed set of questions (refer to Contextual Inquiry Guides at bottom of page for guiding questions)
  • Focus on goals first, tasks second
  • Avoid making the user a designer
  • Avoid discussions of technology
  • Encourage storytelling
  • Ask for a show and tell
  • Avoid leading questions

During Contextual Inquiry

  • Greet user
  • Introduce them to any other observers or note takers.
  • Have user sign consent form
  • Explain contextual inquiry procedure and that you are trying to understand how they do their work in their environment
  • Ask them if they have any questions.
  • Ask an ice breaker question about some of the demographic information you want to collect anyway. Want to put user at ease if possible
  • Ask interview type questions first
  • Switch to observation, focusing on having users "show" you how they do a task instead of just telling you
  • When done,
    • Let them know how they can find out about user research results - e.g., send them links to your project if they are interested
    • Thank them for participating.
    • Ask them if they know anyone else who may be interested in participating

After Contextual Inquiry

  • The interview team should debrief/review the interview
  • Write "Thank You" email to user(s) for their participation
  • Analyze your notes as soon as possible
  • Write up notes - full sentences and as much details as possible so they can be understood by others outside of the interview (sample interview notes are available to participating interviewers from Google Groups)
  • Store notes in a safe location where user's privacy can be maintained
  • Create high level summary of user notes and make available to greater team or community - make sure to conceal interviewee information
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  1. In case people want more general information about contextual inquiries, I created some information for the Fluid Design Handbook you might want to check out:

    1. Thanks Daphne! and thanks for your extensive work on contextual inquiry for FLUID. Our project is heavily modeled after your work.