Contextual research is a great way of understanding your user, with lasting learnings. Here’s the lowdown on it.
What is contextual research?
Contextual research is going out to a natural user environment and observing behaviour or asking questions to find out more about your audience, their motivations and how they may receive a prototype/idea. It’s unique in that it puts you in the user environment, rather than bringing the user into your environment. This changes the dynamic of the research to get more nuanced, natural insights.
You may have heard of some innovation techniques that recommend setting up office environments to match the environment of your user. Whilst these are effective in getting us to think in the mindset of our users, nothing quite beats going out there and seeing things for yourself. The natural user environment is something we ourselves can’t quite recreate, so we should be doing more contextual research where possible.
Is contextual research the right research method for you?
As with any research method, contextual research is not a silver bullet. It will have to be carried out alongside other research methods if you are to use it.
To identify if it is the right research technique for you, consider the following questions:
- What is the goal of this research?
First things first with any sort of research — establish your aims. You need this for clarity, but also to work out if this is the right sort of research for you. If you need to find out about user motivations, gain a wider sense of perspective on something, observe pain points and moments of joy for user experiences in real-time, or see how people use something in a real-life setting, contextual research could be for you.
2. Who exactly are you trying to target?
This question is crucial, because you need clarity to ensure that you’re targeting the right people in the right places. If for example you want to find out more about frustrations from an in-store shopping experience, you have a clear vision of the customers you would like to target, and the place to go to find them. If your audience is unknown, it may be best to step back and do a little more thinking before going out and aimlessly trying to find them.
3. How accessible is this audience/location?
Is there an obvious way for you to reach your audiences? If you are interested in an experience that your user has to go through, can you get there to witness it? Contextual research will quite often involve you having to gain access to areas/experiences that a user is going through. You need to be clear on whether you can do this before you begin.
4. Is your research plan appropriate for the context?
Think about it, if you want to test a prototype, are you in the right environment to do so? If you’re chatting to people in a sensitive situation, it may be best to stick to asking them unscripted questions, rather than pulling out a prototype or rigidly sticking to a script. Equally, there may be certain contexts where observation might appear creepy (think if you’re at an exhibition at a retail fayre where people come and chat to you), and so you’re going to have to chat to people as well. Bear in mind what sort of approach works best for your context and whether you can deliver it.
How do you carry out contextual research?
Contextual research may involve using interview questions, usability testing a prototype, or simply observing users in their natural environment. It’s therefore always important to primarily remember the key tips of facilitation — don’t be leading or interfering and put the users at ease as much as possible.
Here is a checklist of other things to consider prior to conducting user research:
1. Decide on your location, agenda and who you want to target.
Create a structure for what you want to achieve on the day, and if necessary, translate this to the people you are researching with. Be realistic about exactly how much time you can spend observing (a whole day may be too long!). Also consider your location and get a clear sense of who is going to be there. It may be worth doing a recce beforehand to suss out the environment you’ll be in and how you can fit into it (hopefully seamlessly).
2. Think about exactly what you’ll be doing.
You need to decide if you are going to test prototypes/journeys with these people, talk to them, or observe. A lot of this will depend exactly on your research goals, but as mentioned above, it should consider your location (in busy environments, consider that the user may be time bound and adapt to this).
Also consider your audience — some users may need more of an overview of what your plans are in the project. If you are, for example, going into a school or a place of work and conducting research over a period of time, these people need to know your purpose of being there. If however, you were trying to identifying frustrations of an in-store experience, less context is needed when you do chat to shoppers as a one-off interaction.
Think also about how this translates to what you need to be comfortable carrying out the research as well. Do you need a more guided script for interviews, or is a general schedule of topics for you to bear in mind enough to keep you on track?
3. Consider how you will document notes.
If you’re observing behaviour this may not be so much of an issue, but if you’re trying to have more organic conversations with people, think about how you’ll document these findings. Do you need a colleague to come with you for note taking? Will you need to record notes, or even film a participant? Always consider what is appropriate for the context you’re in and get permission from the participants of your research.
4. Ask for more support if you need it.
With contextual research, it is easier to work in small groups or pairs. Even logistically, things like going to grab lunch, or take a toilet break, are easier if you have a colleague to hold the fort whilst you’re gone. Where possible, everyone on your project group should attend contextual research (as long as the environment that you’re in is big enough for you all to troop in without causing chaos). It helps to have a shared understanding with everyone on the project of the type of audience you’re dealing with and what they need, so it’s therefore extremely useful for as many of you as possible to witness users in their context.
What are the benefits of contextual research?
When we watch people in their natural environment, it brings to life the joys and lows of a user experience. You experience the emotions that people feel. You see firsthand what else is happening around users when they’re making a certain interaction. In the uniqueness of that environment the research process is natural, insightful and oftentimes, surprising.
Some of the main benefits to this type of research include:
1. You’ll see how your product/concept fits into everyday life.
People are not isolated. What they are doing with your product/idea is part of a journey and part of a web of complex interactions. Contextual research allows us to see how our product fits into a wider context and the wider problem that you are trying to solve. Realistically, how much time are your users giving to that email, or that app experience you’e created? What other things have they got going on to influence or distract them? Contextual research will help you to find out.
2. You’ll discover new personas.
One of my delights when I first started conducting contextual research was just how much it brings your research to life. So much so, that you may even discover new personas that you hadn’t even considered from things like survey results or web analytics.
Often our personal assumptions are so strong. Going out there and seeing for ourselves the many people and factors that we haven’t considered in the experiences we’re creating provides a great challenge to these assumptions. Hence why I’m such a strong advocate for contextual research. It brings new insights and discoveries in abundance that may challenge the status quo.
3. It’s a natural setting.
Usability testing and research methods are constantly evolving to cater to the needs of the user and put them at ease. However, a user is going to feel much more at home in an environment that is familiar to them, as opposed to entering a new environment (which is often the case with other types of research). This familiarity adds a layer of nuance to our research findings and gives us more of a snippet into the real-life of that user.
4. It’s great to contact hard-to-reach users.
You may not have a huge database of contacts that you can call upon for research with a particular focus. But if you know where these users are going to be, contextual research is a great way to get time with them. For example, if you want to chat to event volunteers, but don’t have a list of contacts, organise some research at an event and get chatting to them in their actual environment. They’ll also be more receptive as they’re in that specific frame of mind, so it’s a win-win situation!
5. Actions speak louder than words
In research actions speak so much more loudly than words. What someone may say they do, in a survey for example, may translate to them doing something very different when they’re relaxed, in a familiar environment and not quite as conscious about what they’re doing.
What do I do with my findings from contextual research?
The beauty of contextual research lies in its longevity. By this I mean I’ve found that my experiences with contextual research have stayed with me far longer than any insights I could have gotten from a survey or general analytics. There is something about that face to face interaction in a unique setting that makes it so poignant. When working on a long project its essential to have these insights front of mind to ensure that we are being user-centric.
It’s therefore all the more important for as many stakeholders on the project to be involved in contextual research as much as possible, so that the user is front of mind for everyone. Use these insights from the research to inform assumptions and decisions for what is best for your user going forward as a team.
Contextual research is also a fantastic research method for visualisation and storytelling. Take as many photographs and videos as you possibly can to relate your research back to your stakeholders. Present on your findings when you return to your place of work to create a buzz for the project as much as possible. Use the research arc to tell your story and tell it compellingly.
Contextual research is brilliant at ensuring that we have a strong qualitative (and sometimes quantitative) basis to inform the rest of our research going forward. It can help us to ascertain real-life motivations and insights into behaviour from users themselves. This adds a further dimension to the analytics and insights we can get from our offices. Going out of the office from time to time to research ensures that our outputs are applicable to the real-life situations we’re working to improve.
So there you have it — a full guide to contextual research. I am a huge advocate of the power of contextual research and encourage using it where possible. I would love to hear about your experiences using contextual research. Any challenges, top tips or anecdotes you have, please share them below and let’s get discussing!