How to Conduct Contextual Interviews in Design

Contextual interviews is one of the most frequently used method in design research. However, many students and designers underestimate the amount of preparation and practice needed to conduct effective interviews and elicit useful insights. This is because contextual interviews are more than a sequence of questions and answers. Rather, this type of interview resembles a structured conversation that takes place in the participant’s environment, for example their home or workplace. The main goal is to gain a deep understanding of their actions and experiences, intents and motiva­tions, attitudes, values, perceptions, and feelings about the topic under investigation. For example, if you needed to redesign the immigration process, the following are topics you would focus on unpacking in a contextual interview: how people experience the process today, what is hard and what is easy about the process to them, how they navigate the process.

Contextual interviews have a high level of openness for which flexibility is key. Unlike surveys, in this case, questions aren’t pre-defined or the same for each participant. Rather, you define specific topics you need to talk about with the participants and the way you approach each topic is often determined by the specifics of each participant. For example, as you would be in the participant’s environment, the interview may be interrupted or take an unexpected turn for which pre-planned questions wouldn’t be as helpful as asking spontaneous questions to learn more about the new situation. So rather than generating questions, the main task in to create an interview guide: list of topics to cover during the interview.

In general, contextual interviews last between 35-60 minutes. When I explain this to my students, their biggest concern is that it would be hard for them to engage in conversation with strangers for such a long time. Who has that much time to talk? is a common question they ask. However, this initial fear dissipates after the first pilot interview. People actually love to talk if someone is paying attention to them and they feel heard. This is why it is essential that you are genuinely interested in what the other person is saying; that is, you listen to what they say and ask follow up questions, rather than asking the next question in a script. Remember to record each interview, and take notes, including as much detail as you can (even if you are recording).

Contextual interviews help:

  • To understand people’s reflections on their own actions and experiences, intents and motivations, attitudes, values, perceptions, and feelings
  • To investigate infrequent actions or events that are hard to observe
  • To inform the development of new design concepts or the evaluation of existing solutions

Online contextual interviews

In an online setting, you won’t be able to physically be in the other person’s environment. The goal would be to learn as much as you can about your participants’ life in other ways so you can build empathy. For example, ask more personal questions to gain a sense of who the person is and you can start seeing the world through their eyes; pay special attention to non-verbal communication, such as facial expressions and body language. Unless there is an Internet constraint (some participants may not have strong connection) or a participant does not feel comfortable sharing their environment, ask your interviewee to show you their surroundings with the camera. You can “go for a walk” with them to get a better sense of their neighborhood, or their home. Or ask them to send you photos about their home prior to the interview. These photos will help you ask participants more specific questions about their life, and the new design or problem you need to learn more about. Remember, as with any other ethnographic method, your goal is to elicit a complete picture of the other person, not only a part of it.

For more guidance on how to conduct contextual interviews studies in design, check out my book


EXERCISE 1: Analysis. Draw a visual representation to illustrate key qualities and characteristics of a good ethnographic interviewer [See image 2]. Think about their role, skills, tasks, superpowers. Use a big sheet of paper for this exercise, and include words, symbols, visuals, and colors. This exercise will help you develop a deeper appreciation of the skills you need to conduct a contextual interview in the field. (This exercise was inspired by Qualitative Research Skills Workshop).

EXERCISE 2: Create interview guide. You are working on a project to design a new hospital patient experience. Create an interview guide to help you structure interviews with patients, doctors and hospital staff. List key topics you need to discuss with each party. Would you talk about the same topics?

EXERCISE 3: Interview another person: As going to a hospital now to conduct an interview may be challenging, practice interviewing a member of your family or a friend over Zoom. Imagine you need to design a new intervention to support people’s wellbeing during lockdown. Create your interview guide and interview 2–3 adults you don’t know very well, and 2-3 adults you know a lot. Each interview can last 10-15 minutes; even if short, the experience will help you gain confidence asking questions and listening. Identify their needs and struggles, and what would make their lives easier. Compare the experience of talking with people you know and you don’t know. What are the similarities and differences? What part of the interview was more challenging? Why?

One comment

  1. Pingback: Series 1: Understanding how to design for real people | Bridging Theory and Practice

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