If one were to peel back all the layers to a UX design, there would be user research tethered to every underlining element. Data that arises from user research rotates the gears in the overall mechanizations to a UI/UX design. Understanding your users is, frankly, the heart of user-centered design, and with trends and user preferences refusing to remain in a stagnant state, user-research is paramount. Context, then, delivers research with the intension of a sturdy user experience based on their perspective.

Context, much like any form of research, can be accumulated in many diverse methodologies. Context inquires, however, is a method that allows information gathering with the user first-hand. Data-driven design that is backed by user feedback elevates experiences through human-centric methods that ensure the user is prioritized and pleased.  

What is Contextual Design?

Contextual design informs UI/UX developers on all the ways users are engaging with an interface to ensure usability and functionality is in a healthy, usable state. Context within interactions is utilized as a mode of research because developers can peek into the minds of their users through contextual inquires.

In a contextual inquiry, UX researchers can observe participants as they navigate an interface, how they interact with the design, and the way in which they perform tasks. Researchers can prompt questions, access users’ thoughts and opinions, and learn ways to pacify pain points. Much like iterative design provides UI/UX designers with feedback to further better a project, contextual inquiries provide data and first-hand answers to underlining questions. 

A contextual inquiry puts contextual design in motion because the questions and observations allow insight on how to streamline a design with the newly acquired context. This process is achievable with its four guiding principles: focus, context, partnerships, and interpretation. 


Since contextual inquiries are real-world observations and interviews, it is vital that the researcher, in this case UI/UX developers, have clear and streamlined questions for their user participants. Whether it is an active or passive contextual inquiry process, a focus on what information you wish to learn about your users for the best possible data is key.


Most, if not all, contextual interviews are conducted in a users’ own environment and how they are utilizing the interface. Whether that is a workplace or a personal space, (in person or remotely) the context in which they are utilizing a UX interface is uncovered. Researchers observe how the users are utilizing the digital interface by simply observing as the user navigate a website/app during the session—an anthropological take to user research.


In order for a contextual inquiry to run as smoothly as possible, users and researchers should collaborate together with effective communication. The optimal results in data can be gathered if researchers ask the right questions, while also allowing users the liberty to share their thoughts. 


An effective strategy before concluding a user-testing session with contextual inquiry is allowing users to further expand on their thoughts and conclusions on the UI/UX interface they were observed using. Researchers can also reiterate the information back to the users they are interpreting for further accuracy. This ensures clarity in the process and allows data and feedback to be best applied to a UI/UX design once the session is completed.

The result of contextual inquiry is beneficial for discovering hidden data and insights to improve a process and learn about what is important to users for current and future designs. Although there is a plethora of user-testing tools out there, such as analytics tools or heat map tracking, contextual inquiries allow for real-world observations that insist on a deeper, first-hand mode to testing. 

It allows digital design developers to truly gain a user perspective by observing them in real time, ask questions on small or significant details, and document data as best as possible.