Research Clarified: Contextual enquiries

Megan Cattley


03 January 2023

Contextual enquiries are a type of behavioural research. This research method involves a researcher watching a participant complete a task or actions in practice.

It may be at their home, work or other environments they typically complete said tasks. Whilst watching the participant, the researcher will ask questions (at a non-intrusive time) to understand more about what they are doing and clarify thought processes.


Why contextual enquiries?

Contextual enquiries allow us to gain a real understanding of how a product or service is being used, what this looks like in practice and the surrounding environment for use. Often what people say they do and what they really do are not the same thing. The insights gathered from contextual enquiries reduce this challenge and provide an in-depth understanding into user needs. It allows the moderator to see behaviours that the user may not otherwise report or even realise they are doing. 


Make it Clear’s tips

Set the context for the session

It’s important to make sure that you ease the participant into the session. Starting off with some simple introductory questions or tasks can help. 


Be aware of your environment

Unlike the majority of other research methods, it’s highly likely that you may be in someone’s home or work environment. It’s critical that you act accordingly. This means being conscious of intrusion, tone and your behaviour.


Stop and discuss with the participant

It’s important to clarify with the participant their actions to understand more about the what and the why. This helps to ensure that you interpret your observations correctly. However, it’s important to pick non-disruptive moments to do so and advise participants that they can inform you if it is not a good time to pause.


Avoid turning the session into an interview

Although it is recommended to stop and discuss participants’ actions with them, you should avoid getting caught in an interview process. This means simply talking about what they would do or their expectations. Remember to stay focused on observing.


Stay neutral

As stated in the previous point, as the researcher, your role is to observe. Avoid correcting the participant or telling them that they are doing something ‘wrong’ if they aren’t using the product or service in the way it is necessarily intended. 



We find that contextual enquiries offer beneficial insights and can provide an in-depth understanding of how participants use your product or service. Stay tuned for our next post in this series.


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