Techniques Used For Understanding Users

Published: 2019/12/10 Number of words: 3096


Techniques used to gather information about users, their tasks and to study their environment consist, among others, of contextual inquiry, interviews, questionnaires, surveys and observation. In this report we look at contextual inquiry and interviews. Contextual inquiry entails observing and interviewing users in their work place. It follows four principles, namely context, partnership, interpretation and focus. Interviews are used to elicit information about particular topics from users. They are flexible and if any clarifications or details are needed, one is able to get answers promptly. After user data has been gathered, the use of personas can be used effectively to present findings of the research. Personas are easy to identify with and are used throughout the design process.

1. Introduction

There are various methods that can be used to gain an understanding of users, their tasks and the environment they work in. Some methods used are surveys, document reviews, interviews, observation, questionnaires, and contextual inquiry. The way the data is presented to the design team is important because the user can reject the system if it does not meet the requirements set out at the start of the project. Personas are useful for this purpose.

2. Method Descriptions

When designing a computer system for a company or organisation, there are many methods that can be used to determine the users’ requirements, their tasks and their environment. Some of the methods used include interviews, surveys, document reviews, observation, researching similar products, and contextual inquiry.

3. Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry is a structured approach to the collection and interpretation of data from field work for the purpose of designing a software-based product [1]. Contextual inquiry is carried out by the designer during the initial phases of system development to help ascertain the user’s needs or requirements and the tasks and the goals that the user wants to achieve. This method comprises two techniques: interviews and observation. The advantage of this method is that while interviews are influenced by designers and observation is influenced by the users, contextual inquiry is influenced by both the user and the designer.

In contextual inquiry, the designer takes the role of an apprentice and the user the role of a master. The designer asks questions and the user answers them. This is known as the master-apprentice model of learning [2].

There are four main principles of contextual inquiry

  • Context

The designer observes the user in the work place and can ask questions when he/she needs clarification. Being in the same environment as the user helps the designers conceptualise the design better because they are in it and not outside looking in [Nielsen]

  • Partnership

Beyer and Holtzblatt (1998) describe this principle as being about creating an equal relationship between the designer and the user. The designer and the user collaborate and work together so that one is not superior to the other. The designer becomes the apprentice and the user the master.

  • Interpretation

This principle states that what is observed must be correctly interpreted in order to be used in design. The designer, who is the observer, should make sure that the way he/she interprets the observations are correct.

  • 1.4 Focus

The designer should be able to keep track of the goals set out to be achieved from the interaction between him/her and the user. This is done by the use of an observation guide. During an interview it is easy to lose track of the main issues and focus on those that will not be helpful during the design process.

3.2 Advantages of Contextual Inquiry

One important benefit of contextual inquiry is that the designer is able to gather more information about the user’s tasks and needs because observing the user perform his/her tasks is ongoing rather than short term, as is the case when conducting interviews.

The content of the information collected during contextual inquiry is more actionable because it is more focused and content dependent [8]

This method is particularly helpful for designers if they are unfamiliar with the domains they are building. Being in the same environment helps the designer to conceptualise the users’ tasks and the environment they work in and be able to develop an appropriate interface [9].

Karen Holtzblatt and Sandra Jones give the following as advantages of contextual inquiry: it provides a way to work with users for a short period of time; the users are involved in sharing the vision and thus team work is enhanced; and it fosters participatory design [10].

3.3 Disadvantages of Contextual Inquiry

The process is longer and requires more effort to gather data than the use of only observation and interviews [8].

It is not possible to use this method with some professionals–surgeons and fighter pilots, for example.

The observations made by the designer may be based on assumptions and hence the design might be affected by false data based on the mental models of the observer.

Holtblattz and Jones maintain that one of the major problems of using contextual inquiry is the users [10]. They found that when users are confronted by questions, they tend to forget some of the challenges they face and cannot adequately explain what they require of the new system. This stems from the fact that they are not fully conversant with design work and are not qualified computer professionals.

Other users respond to questions based on what they think the observer wants to hear. They also express opinions, rather than facts, about their experiences in using the system.

Most people when being watched change their behaviour and response to work. This may lead the observer to come to incorrect conclusions and the designed system may be a failure.

3.4 Situational Factors

Contextual inquiry is best suited for situations that are unfamiliar to the designers. This is because the time spent observing and profiling the user takes longer than merely using interviews or questionnaires to elicit data from the user.

The use of contextual inquiry starts during the early stage of design with the user. In this way, where there is a high chance of rejection of new system being used, the users feel more at ease and the acceptance level is high.

This method is not suitable for projects that have time constraints because profiling users and finally coming up with personas is time consuming. It is also very expensive.

4. Interviews

Interviews can be described as ‘conversations with a purpose’ [11]. They are used to gather information about the users during the initial stages of determining requirements. The nature of study being undertaken is the main determinant of what kind of interview is held.

Conducting interviews generally takes less time and fewer resources than other methods of gaining information.

There are four main types of interviews: [12]

  • Open-ended or unstructured

The interviewer poses questions that have no predetermined answers. The respondent can answer the questions in any way that they want. For example the interviewer may ask, ‘What are the advantages of using a computer?’

These kinds of questions are used if the designer is not familiar with the product he/she is designing. They are also used when he/she needs to explore a range of opinions.

  • Advantages

Rich data or data that gives a deep understanding of the topic is generated from this kind of interviews. New aspects can be brought up that the interviewer had not taken into consideration and that can be useful during the design stage.

  • Disadvantages

Due to the amount of data generated, it becomes time consuming to review all that data.

As each interview takes its own shape, it is not easy to have a harmonised process.

  • Structured or closed interviews

The interviewer poses questions that have a predetermined answer. For example, ‘Do you purchase electronics online?’ There is the option of answering, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If ‘yes’, the question is asked, ‘How many purchases do you make in a month?’ Short and clearly worded questions are best used to avoid ambiguity.

4.2 Advantages

The types of questions asked are all the same and in the same format. This enables standardisation and data gathered is easier to analyse. Therefore the amount of taken is shorter than in open-ended interviews.

These types of interviews are most appropriate in busy places as they are quick and no details or explanations are required.

4.3 Disadvantages

There is no scope for gathering new insights from the users as they are not given the option of giving details. The designer might miss out on vital data that would be helpful.

4.4 Semi-structured

This kind of interview combines the features of structured and unstructured interviews. An interviewer asks some structured questions for consistency purposes and also asks unstructured questions to encourage the user to give more information. These unstructured questions can be asked until the user has no new information.


More information can be gleaned as this kind of interview contains the advantages of both unstructured and structured interviews.

  • Disadvantages

When probing for answers from the user, the interviewer needs to be careful not to intimidate the user. He/she should use neural probes and should help the user when some computer jargon has been forgotten so that they can move on to other topics [1].

4.5 Group interviews

A trained moderator conducts an unstructured interview with a small group of respondents [13]. The moderator leads the discussions with the aim of gaining useful insights from the group. Specific topics are discussed.

  • Advantages

The moderator is able to get numerous opinions and ideas from a lot of people in a short period of time [14]. Non-verbal communication can be picked up by the moderator and explanations can be given if there are things that are not understood.

  • Disadvantages

The data collected is usually very difficult to quantity and the moderator may lead respondents to answer in a biased way by his/her body language and choice of words.

4.6. Situational Factors

Interviews are best suited for eliciting details from users. They are not complicated and do not require a lot of organising before using them.

Interviews are a great way to find in-depth information about users. They are fairly easy to organise, need very few facilities, and can be a lot of fun. Without understanding users, how can your site possibly fulfil their needs?

5. Persona

Personas are rich descriptions of typical users of the product under development that the designers can focus on and design the product for [3].

Cooper [1999, p.123] describes personas as, ‘A precise description of our user and what he (sic) wishes to accomplish.’

Calde, Goodwin and Reimann [2002] defines personas: ‘User models, or personas, are fictional, detailed archetypical characters that represent distinct groupings of behaviors, goals and motivations observed and identified during the research phase.’[5]

Various other people describe personas as a tool for design and communication in the system development team [4].

Personas are effective tools that are used to communicate findings about users. The personas must be memorable so that the design team can empathize with them. They are usually used during the entire user-centered design process.

Personas comprise a picture that enables the design team to visualise the user. The description of the persona gives an understanding of the user in the terms of skills, tasks performed, attitudes and the environment they work in.

For personas to be used effectively, they should be based on goals and not tasks. This is because tasks can

differ but they lead towards the same goal. For example, to lose weight one can use different methods, like dieting or exercising, but the ultimate goal is to lose weight.

  • Strengths of Personas

Personas play a vital role in helping designers understand the users. Through the use of personas and scenarios, the designers are able to explore user interface concerns.

Interface and functional specifications and other project documents are provided to the designers through the use of detailed scenarios. They are useful in usability testing, documentation and quality assurance [7].

Personas are used in the early stages of a project; hence they prove to be more acceptable to the user because he/she is involved from the start of the project until the end. The likelihood of users rejecting the end product is very low.

Personas have a role in helping designers to generate new ideas but can also assist in validating new designs as they emerge [6].

A participant in one of Dr Liene Nielsen’s workshops expressed,

‘Now we are working inside out. Normally we work outside in.’ [15]

This meant that the designer felt that for the first time they she/he had invented from the viewpoint of the user; by understanding the user, instead of trying to force the product onto the users [15]

  • Weaknesses of Personas

Coming up with personas is time consuming and costly as they are representative of real users.

The time taken to gather requirements is usually longer and more costly than other conventional methods of gathering user information.

There is no published material on how to use personas so people have to be trained in order to understand them. This results in further costs and time issues [6].

6. Situational Factors

The time spent observing and interviewing the user using contextual inquiry makes it the best choice for building personas. Personas require a lot of detail as they are supposed to be as representative of the real user as possible so as to meet their goals.

7. Conclusion

Understanding users is a vital process in order to design a software product that will not be rejected and will suit the user’s requirements. The use of contextual inquiry as a method of understanding users has been shown to be successful according to Beyer and Holtzblatt (1998).

The use of personas is an effective way of communicating findings from user research. Studies carried out to show the effectiveness of using personas in user-centred design show positive findings [8].

8. References

[1] John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Interaction Design: Beyond Human-computer Interaction. 2nd Edition, Pub 2006


[3] John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Interaction Design: Beyond Human-computer Interaction. 2nd Edition, Pub 2006 page 481





[8]Anders Ryman, How to get personas t conform – a case study of design method compatibility, 2000


[10] Karen Holtzblatt and Sandra Jones (RiCHI, pp. 241-253)

[11] Kahn and Cannel, 1957[3] pg 298

[12] ] John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Interaction Design: Beyond Human-computer Interaction. 2nd Edition, Pub 2006 pg 298




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