Shampoo in the shower and Contextual Inquiry

In a recent post on Linkedin by Kath Straub displayed the following photo along with this comment:

Shampoo in the shower

Really. PLEASE put SHAMPOO (or S) in BIG LETTERS on the little bottle so we can tell shampoo from conditioner without glasses in the shower!

This got us thinking about how it is important to observe real users in real environments. Contextual Inquiry is an important tool that UX professionals can use to gain insights into product design by observing and interacting with real user in real environments.

The Usability Body of Knowledge defines Contextual inquiry as follows:

"Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured interview method to obtain information about the context of use, where users are first asked a set of standard questions and then observed and questioned while they work in their own environments.

Because users are interviewed in their own environments, the analysis data is more realistic than laboratory data. Contextual inquiry is based on a set of principles that allow it to be molded to different situations. This technique is generally used at the beginning of the design process and is good for getting rich information about work practices, the social, technical, and physical environments, and user tools.

The four principles of contextual inquiry are:
1. Focus - Plan for the inquiry, based on a clear understanding of your purpose
2. Context - Go to the customer's workplace and watch them do their own work
3. Partnership - Talk to customers about their work and engage them in uncovering unarticulated aspects of work
4. Interpretation - Develop a shared understanding with the customer about the aspects of work that matter

The results of contextual inquiry can be used to define requirements, improve a process, learn what is important to users and customers, and just learn more about a new domain to inform future projects. "

We often tell our clients the story about how we once did a bunch of international contextual inquiry for a company that wrote software for managing container ship ports. We went to many container ports around the world to examine how different people in different locations used their software.

One of the main findings was that many of the people use a two-monitor set-up. They had two large monitors set up right next to each other with the left side of one adjacent to the right side of the other.

image of two monitors

What we found was that when the system displayed pop-up messages and dialogs, they popped up in what was the center of the screen for the designers/developers (that only has one monitor (X=50,Y=50)), but was split right between two screens for the actual users.

The end users immediately moved the pop-ups off to one side and then interacted with them. When we asked, they said that they didn’t even think about it.

When we got back from the trip our report included a suggestion to remember the last known location of a pop-up or modal dialog box, and continue to use that location for subsequent pop-up presentations.

Something we would never have known without seeing real users use the product in their real environments.

This is just one example of many such suggestions inspired by encounters with Real World use of a software system. Much like the Shampoo in the Shower, observing these systems in real-time real use can make a difference in the design.

The moral of the story: User-centered Design and Usability testing are great, but make sure you see how your product is used IRL (In Real Life).