Contextual Inquiry: collecting data

June 16, 2008
    There are four kinds of information you should pay attention to when observing people at work. Each of these elements can be improvised or formal, shared or used alone, specific or flexible:

  1. The tools they use. This can be a formal tool, such as a specialized piece of software, or it can be an informal tool, such as a scribbled note. Note whether the tools are being used as they’re deigned, or if they’re being repurposed. How do the tools interact? What are the brands? Are the Post-its on bezel the monitor or on the outside flap of the Palm Pilot?
  2. The sequences in which actions occur. The order of actions is important in terms of understanding how the participant is thinking about the task. Is there a set order that’s dictated by the tools or by office culture? When does the order matter? Are there things that are done in parallel? Is it done continuously, or simultaneously with another task? How do interruptions affect the sequence?
  3. Their methods of organization. People cluster some information for convenience and some out of necessity. The clustering may be shared between people, or it may be unique to the individbeing observed. How does the target audience organize the information elements they use? By importance? If so, how is importance defined? By convenience? Is the order flexible?
  4. What kinds of interactions they have. What are the important parties in the transfer of knowledge? Are they people? Are they processes? What kinds of information are shared (what are the Inputs and outputs)? What is the nature of the interaction (informational, technical, social, etc.)?
  5. The influences of all four of these things will, of course, be intertwined, and sometimes it may be hard to unravel the threads. The participant may be choosing a sequence for working on data, or the organization of the data may force a certain sequence. Note the situations where behaviors may involve many constraints. These are the situations you can clarify with a carefully placed question or during the follow-up interview.

From: Kuniavsky, M (2003), Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide for User Research, San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, p. 171

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