A contextual task analysis, or contextual inquiry, is a user research method that applies ethnographic observation and one-on-one interviewing to understand the task procedures that users follow to reach their goals. The researcher silently observes the user at work in his or her natural work environment and notes any tools and people that support the user as they work toward task goals.
For example, if a user is booking a vacation online, she may look up hotels online and then call the hotel front desk to learn more about the hotel. She may also review consumer ratings online to determine if the hotel offers amenities and services that meet her needs and preferences. In this example, the researcher would simply observe the user while she finds a hotel that is suitable. The researcher will take notes, and possibly use audio and/or video recording to capture key moments in the process. Following the observation, the researcher may conduct a one-on-one interview to understand the procedure from the user’s point of view. In order to analyze a task procedure in terms of the average emotional and behavior patterns experienced by all participants in a study, the researcher may conduct exercises that let users map out the task procedure on paper and indicate their emotional reactions to specific procedural steps.
During contextual inquiry, users will describe several tasks that they carry out in an application or on a website in order to accomplish specific goals. Researchers may use observation, participatory exercises and structured interviews as tools to learn more about the procedural steps that users take in order to reach their goals. The data collected can be portrayed as a sequence model to understand the sequence of steps that users take, from start to finish, as they work toward specific goals. A sequence model describes a particular task, the user’s desired goal, and lists each detailed step involved in the order that the user carries them out.
An artifact model depicts the physical tools used to accomplish a task. This model includes an illustration or photograph of each artifact, along with a description of how it contributes to the user’s workflow. For example, a telephone may be an artifact if the user must place a call in order to complete a task.
A cultural model is a diagram that shows how each group of people involved in a task work for or against one another. The diagram depicts the roles of each person and their relationships to the groups of people with whom they interact directly and indirectly. One group may follow a specific protocol to resolve a problem, and that may affect other groups involved. For example, in a call center, an employee in the Customer Service department may send a customer over to the Technical Support department. Each of these departments has their own set of rules, guidelines, and etiquette, which all affect the customer’s experience. Even the process of transferring a customer from one department to another in order to solve their problem says something about the culture of the company itself. When these cultural relationships are mapped out, they can be examined to improve efficiency and user satisfaction.
A physical model portrays the physical characteristics of a work environment or communication network. A physical model is a sort of blueprint that depicts the workflow in terms of where certain artifacts are located and how the user and other equipment, such as computer workstations, servers, printers, etc., work together to accomplish a task. For example, a user may access a website from his home, and the server storing the website he is viewing may be located in a city far from his home. The content of the website may be updated at the office of a company or web developer in yet another city. A physical model of this scenario would map out what each person or tool does at each location and how they relate to one another. This document may be used to ensure that the workflow and processes involved run efficiently and effectively.