Four rules for creating powerful UX designs through contextual inquiry

May 22, 2018

Effective UX design is only as good as the research that informs it—and the core of good UX research is directly observing how people use a product to do their work. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Often, it’s a little trickier than you’d think. Take, for instance, a Bloomberg Terminal user. The chaotic nature of a workflow prone to interruptions and fast moving trade information can be challenging to observe and understand.

Even when it can feel intimidating or intrusive, UX researchers need to find ways to get in there. They need to observe the chaos up close to have any chance of designing a product that helps a user manage that chaos better. While UX researchers at Bloomberg have state-of-the-art user research labs, nothing substitutes for the insights that come from shadowing users and observing how they work up close.

That’s why, when it comes to conducting research to better understand users’ workflows, contextual inquiry is the method of choice at Bloomberg. Recently, contextual inquiry was at the core of the UX team’s approach to a redesign of Bloomberg software which incorporated an “Action Queue” dashboard to help users monitor their work.

With lessons from that research effort in mind, here are four contextual inquiry principles the team followed that any UX designer can use to understand workflows, document findings and create impactful new products:

Rule #1: Have a focus so you’re clear what you’re listening for

UX research isn’t just about gathering data and sharing artifacts. The goal is to inform design. Before going into the field to conduct a contextual inquiry session, you need to be crystal clear with your stakeholders on what problems you’re looking to solve.

“For the Action Queue project, we knew that these users had a disjointed experience across many systems,” said Qian Xie, a Bloomberg UX designer on the project.

The product team had identified the need to understand how users stitch together a process across multiple systems. They looked to the UX team to help understand how these users prioritize their work, assess their workload and monitor their progress.

Mark Safire, UX Researcher, pretends to interview Ash Brown, UX Designer

“We needed to see them at work to understand the steps, challenges and successes they encounter every day,” said Xie.

Quick Tip: Avoid positive responses (“Yes” “Great,”) and use affirmations instead (“Helpful,” “Interesting,” “Thanks”). Motivate users with your authentic gratitude instead of unwittingly encouraging them to guess what you want to hear.

Rule #2: Commit to learning like an apprentice

It can be intimidating to visit a client who knows more about a subject than you. Turn this lack of knowledge into an advantage, positioning yourself as a beginner. It will help you get users to be specific about aspects of their workflow.

“We ask clients to imagine they have been promoted and they are sitting with a newbie,” says Mark Safire, Team Lead of UX Research. “They go into ‘teacher mode’ and tend to demonstrate things concisely, slowly, and with relevant context.”

When the work can’t be observed directly, customers are asked to recall the last time they did a specific task and to show an example.

Quick Tip: Have a consistent couple of researchers/designers do the bulk of the interviews, but bring along engineers and product managers as feasible to provide fresh eyes. They will likely catch some things you missed because of their expertise.

Rule #3: Create a system that helps your team assign meaning to your observations

“Our contextual inquiry practice yields a ton of data,” says Ash Brown, a Team Lead for UX Design at Bloomberg who worked on the Action Queue project. “We synthesize this data as a team to build a common understanding.”

To synthesize the data, the team distills the notes from contextual inquiries into discrete observations and then tags them in nVivo to build a knowledge store. Linking findings to observations grounds them in evidence, which produces insights with integrity.

While observations are often captured on sticky notes and arranged into an affinity diagram by the team on a wall, this approach does not prove as effective for larger projects as a database does.

“There aren’t enough walls in the city or sticky notes in the supply closet to map observations at an enterprise scale,” said Ash. “And throughout the product lifecycle you want to be able to pull from your trove of qualitative data to answer questions from your partners in product, engineering, upper management and sales.”

For Action Queue, the team traced the steps involved in resolving mismatched trades, identified key ways users prioritize their work and discovered that many clients don’t have effective ways to estimate their workload or track the progress of their work.

Quick Tip: Debrief as soon as possible after a session with your visit partner. Distill your findings without losing meaningful detail (and evocative quotes) to streamline analysis

Tracing design decisions back to field research can be tricky. The Bloomberg team uses a database tool to tag observations and uses them in justifying decisions throughout the product development lifecycle.

Rule #4: Bring your findings to life by presenting them from the user’s point of view

Whether through personas, affinity diagrams, user journey maps or custom visual diagrams, the team includes compelling but simple visual layouts to make information easy for other team members to grasp and critique.

For this project, the team presented an overall flowchart, plus a series of user journeys that helped to situate the process within a day in the life of our middle office persona. They captured the drama concisely, drawn from real-life observations and discussions. They highlighted some pain points that showed the inefficiency and annoyance that arises from having to cut and paste IDs from system to system and from looking up reference data in manually updated spreadsheets.

Visual artifacts, like the model above, are essential for creating common understanding across teams and bringing context to how design decisions impact a user’s day.

“Visuals help developers or product managers who haven’t been a part of the entire research process ‘get’ our findings faster,” says Ash. “It can be tricky to include everyone in the process, but visual artifacts are essential to helping people easily understand our findings and jump in and out of the process.”

Quick Tip: Don’t limit yourself to a diagram that fits in a typical PowerPoint layout. Use design tools that take advantage of a larger canvas

Contextual Inquiry in Action

Make sure to get out of the building to watch your clients at work. You can’t beat the simple act of watching, inquiring, and jotting down notes to understand what your clients are really experiencing. It’s even more important if the way your client works can seem unconventional or chaotic.

“As you document the steps, you will ideally capture not just the triggers and stumbling blocks, but also the attitudes and atmosphere,” says Mark. “You want to bring the voice of the user to the table, complete with its tenor of anxiety or elation.”

To make these visits effective, scope your work to provide a clear focus, position yourself as an attentive newbie, systematize your analysis to accommodate scale, and visualize the results to persuade others. With that, you’ll have the makings of impactful research insights.

Looking for more UX methods and case studies? Checkout Bloomberg’s UX blog.

Interested in being a Sr. UX Researcher at Bloomberg? View our job posting.