Conducting effective Contextual Research

Why should you conduct contextual research?

As a UX designer and even a business owner, it’s too easy to sit behind a desk in our offices and try and come up with solutions to problems that isn’t obvious to us.

It’s like trying to imagine what problems you might come up with when going on holiday vs actually going to the airport, customs, finding your seat in an aeroplane.  Especially if you’ve never actually flown a particular airline or been to a particular holiday destination.

As a designer, you’ll always lack the understanding of how things will be used in the real world because you haven’t embedded yourself in the real world when designing your solution.

Accommodating for user needs on an e-commerce store is one thing, but accounting for distractions and the user environment is another.

Contextual studies users.

So getting out and conducting Contextual research, otherwise known as ‘Guerilla ethnography’ means you actually have the ability to find better problems to solve.

So when should you do it?

Contextual research is ideal when you find yourself designing for things you know very little about.

It’s no mistake that the projects and contracts that I choose to take on are the ones that I’m most familiar with or are curious about.   So it’s ideal to do this before starting any design, but after you’ve defined the problem.

Design, Research, Options (brainstorm), Prototype & Test.

How to do it?

The great thing about Contextual Research is that it doesn’t have to take very long.  The amount of time you spend will largely depend on your project budget and what you’re studying.

The most important aspect of it all is that it gives you realistic data around what your users are actually doing, and the environment in which they do it.

I much prefer this to conducting workshops as it removes all the issues around what users say they do and what they actually do.


Sony did a study a few years back where they asked users in a workshop if they preferred the yellow walkman or the black one (I did say it was a while ago).  Most of them said the yellow walkman.  However, upon leaving the session, users were offered walkmans as a gift and funnily enough most of them picked the black ones!

UX Walkman Study.

Users can say and do things differently, so watch what they do rather than asking them direct questions.

One way to get access to real users is to listen in on the call centre.  If you or your client runs a customer support centre, sit in the vicinity of the area so you can listen in on the calls.  This can help you identify patterns in customer interactions with the company, and even usability issues within the product.

So let’s run through the steps of Contextual Research:

Set a budget (or find out what it is)
This will dictate a lot of what you can do, so make sure that contextual research is the ux methodology you are after.

1. Contact interviewees
Ideally, you want to recruit your existing clients.  Or simply look at your UX personas and contact users who fit that ideal criteria.   Either call or send a survey to your database, asking users for an interview in exchange for something.

2. Prepare your research
When planning to conduct a more structured interview, you’ll have a set of questions in advance.  Even if you are unsure of what you’re looking for, have something set up in order to get the process going.  Often, the way in which a user goes about doing one task may spark up a different problem.

Try and conduct a trial run of your research with your work colleagues to identify any problems with your questions.

3. Take Photos
If you feel like it’s appropriate for the environment within you are working, take photos.  Video is one step better as it allows you to go over the interview again and capture anything you may have missed when you were there.  Ensure you get permission beforehand.

4. Report your findings
Right, now it’s time to go through your notes.  Once you’re back in the office you’ll need to list out the findings of each task and note problems associated with each task.

It’s your job to group any similar findings and create our contextual research report based on those groups.  Remember that it’s important to keep your own biases out of the equation.  This can be supported with photos, brochures, pamphlets or even video recorded at the session.

For more info check out the video below.

Contextual Research

Stay informed,

Tania Richardson web designer.

10+ years as a product designer. Helping start-ups and organisations combine user research and design principals to deliver the best in online experiences.

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