Honing Your Research Skills Through Ad-hoc Contextual Inquiry

It’s common in our field to hear that we don’t get enough time to regularly practice all the types of research available to us, and that’s often true, given tight project deadlines and limited resources. But one form of user research–contextual inquiry–can be practiced regularly just by watching people use the things around them and asking a few questions.

I started thinking about this after a recent experience returning a rental car to a national brand at the Phoenix, Arizona, airport.

My experience was something like this: I pulled into the appropriate lane and an attendant came up to get the rental papers and send me on my way. But, as soon as he started, someone farther up the lane called loudly to him saying he’d been waiting longer. The attendant looked at me, said “sorry,” and ran ahead to attend to the other customer.

A few seconds later a second attendant came up, took my papers, and jumped into the car to check it in. She was using an app on an tablet that was attached to a large case with a battery pack, which she carried over her shoulder. She started quickly tapping buttons, but I noticed she kept navigating back to the previous screen to tap another button.

Curious being that I am, I asked her if she had to go back and forth like that a lot. She said “yes, I keep hitting the wrong thing and have to go back.”

Seeing an opportunity to explore her use of the device, I asked if this happened a lot. She said it did because the buttons were too small for her fingers. She told me every time a new feature was added to the reservation system, more buttons appeared on the screen and they all kept getting smaller. The system, I have to assume, was designed to use as few screens as possible.

Within two minutes she completed the check in and printed my receipt. She did it using a small battery-powered printer she wore over her other shoulder that printed roughly three-inch wide receipts. I asked how often she had to recharge her devices: once a day, usually at break times.

Her activity and my interaction with her took no more than a few minutes, but this is what I was able to glean from it:

  • Airport rental car attendants work in a fast-paced environment, often dealing with agitated customers who are running late for their flights.
  • These attendants, at least for this company, carry two devices over their shoulders as they work the busy return lanes.
  • The app in use at this company wasn’t designed to be the most finger-friendly. A greater emphasis seemed to be placed on having more features on fewer screens.
  • In addition to monitoring incoming vehicle traffic, they have make sure their devices have enough battery power to make it to the next break.
  • They are doing this work, carrying these devices, and being polite to sometimes impatient customers in a climate where the summer temperatures easily exceed 100ºF. And they are on their feet in a concrete parking deck for much of their work day.

That’s a lot of information to gather in a few minutes by asking three questions. What I found most interesting in the experience, as someone who designs digital user experiences, was the reminder that people around us every day are having problems using the hardware and software we create. It reinforced for me that we can learn a lot about how to approach hardware and software design just by watching people use these products, even products we had no part in creating.

Now, I certainly can’t claim to have found ways to improve the reservation system in question. That would require more field study with additional users as well as talking to the product designers and other stakeholders to understand the decisions that led to the current user interface. But, the experience left me wondering if the company ever bothered to watch its employees use the system in a real-world setting.

My point here is that we can still practice these observational research techniques even if we don’t always get the chance to do so on the products we get paid to design. And we can document these moments to make a case at our companies for why this kind of research needs to be part of our product development cycles. There’s value in these exercises, even if the results don’t immediately show up in our companies’ products. It’s an activity I’d encourage everyone to try.

There are plenty of opportunities for this sort of activity, including:

  • Retail self-checkout lanes,
  • Any self-service airport application,
  • Self-serve vending machines like Redbox or mass-transit ticketing machines,
  • Hotel check-in/check-out kiosks,
  • And many others I’m sure I missed.

There are a few things you need to be aware of and take into consideration before attempting to interact with strangers in the middle of a frustrating technology moment:

  • The people in these situations may be angry and flustered, so look for body language cues that may signal you are better off leaving them alone. If they are hitting the machine and cursing, you may just want to hang back and observe.
  • Politely approach people and ask if it’s OK to talk to them about their experience with the system in question. In most cases it’s better to wait until they are done because right at the moment they are using it they are probably more focused on completing their task.
  • Make sure you don’t imply they are doing something wrong. Let them know you are interested in making products better for people and would like to ask them a few quick questions about the experience they just had. If they say “no,” respect that and move along.
  • Explain that you are not with the company in question and can have no impact on any future version of the product. The last thing you want them to think is that you are a conduit for complaints to the company or that you can actually have any impact on future versions. It’s important to be as clear as possible to avoid setting false expectations.
  • Be sensitive to your surroundings and other customers who may be waiting to use a system. The last thing you ever want to do is slow down a busy checkout lane or self-serve kiosk at an airport.
  • Be sensitive to the application at hand and the location and time of day. It’s safe to say you should never approach someone using an ATM or other financial services kiosk. You also shouldn’t approach someone using a self-serve vending machine that is outdoors late at night. That could make them feel threatened or even cause them to react physically.
  • Honor any request by the business in question to not approach their customers.

Although exercises like this won’t tell us the things we’d like to know about the products we work on, they do let us practice the techniques of contextual inquiry and observation and make us more sensitive to various design issues. These experiences may also help us build the case in more companies for scheduling time and resources for in-field research with our actual customers.

Posted in Case Studies, Discovery, Research, and Testing, Learning From Others | 4 Comments »

4 Comments

  • Contextual Inquiry | Andy McIlwain @ andymci.com

    July 15, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    […] via Honing Your Research Skills Through Ad-hoc Contextual Inquiry « Boxes and Arrows. […]

  • Dey Alexander

    July 16, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Nice post. I find myself doing this kind of thing a lot – with content issues as well as design. I love that the whole world is a big research lab!

  • Shaun

    July 21, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    At parking machines and some gas pumps stations, I find myself frustrated often. I also observe the reaction from people using it to, and feel comforted by their frustration. It’s so easy to second guess yourself, which leads me to believe that the public will often blindly accept a bad experience because of self doubt in a single use situation.

    It would be great to educate the public more on the awareness that interactions aren’t suppose to be hard, and that their are people out there (like us) whose sole mission is to savagely advocate on behalf of the them.

  • Will Hacker

    August 10, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    @Shaun, some gas pumps (at least in the US) have the added “feature” of video screens running commercials and two-minute network TV segments. Talk about adding another distraction.

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