A contextual inquiry is a study of how users interact with equipment and their environment. The researcher collects this information in context with real-time observations, rather than with isolated interviews and reviews. This may reveal important information that is not readily apparent with other types of data collection methods. Researchers end up with substantial raw data to review and analyze after a contextual inquiry and can use this information in a variety of ways.
There are a number of settings where this information gathering method can be useful. These can include ethnographic studies to learn more about human populations along with workplace efficiency analyses and usability studies on experimental techniques and equipment. In all cases, the researcher starts by securing permission to work in a given environment and setting up a schedule that will limit disruption. It is necessary to see people naturally at work, but some times may be better than others; researchers don't want to disrupt major projects, for example.
The interviewer performs an introduction, stressing that the goal of the contextual inquiry is to see how people work under typical conditions. While the presence of an interviewer can be distracting, people are asked to behave as normally as possible. The contextual inquiry may start with some quick background questions, and then the researcher observes. Some researchers may ask for instruction, having their subjects explain a task. They can also interrupt, by prior arrangement, to ask clarifying questions.
This method of study is highly observational. Researchers don't want to influence their subjects and thus use unobtrusive methods to collect their data. These can include recording with hidden devices, rather than openly taking notes, as well as having other observers in the area working discreetly. At the end of the contextual inquiry, the researcher thanks the subject for taking time to participate, and starts reviewing the data and preparing an analysis of the findings.
Researchers may learn that people use equipment and techniques in unexpected ways that they may not disclose in conventional interviews and surveys. This may be important for a company to know about, as it could develop products with these uses in mind, or might improve efficiency by providing its employees with more suitable tools to complete tasks. A contextual inquiry may also show how different populations solve problems in environments like the workplace, and can provide important data on behaviors around new technology and equipment.