Contextual Inquiry at the Library

“Contextual Inquiry is a form of fly-on-the-wall user research where users are observed in their own environment.”  (Clearleft, n.d.)

Contextual inquiry is an ethnographic research method that is based on Contextual Design (Wikipedia, 2012).  Contextual Design is a user-centered design process based on theories from anthropology, psychology, and design, for commercial design teams to collect, interpret and consolidate data about users in the field to understand user’s fundamental intents, desires, and drives in order to create and prototype products and services, and iteratively test and refine those products and services (Holtzblatt & Beyer, 2013).  Contextual design was primarily used to understand work practices, and Holtzblatt & Beyer (2013) point out that the only way to understand users is to go out in the field and observe and talk with people in their natural context, their workplace.

This concept has been adapted in the UX community to provide a methodology for gathering data about users in other contexts, including the library profession in both physical and online spaces (Eriksson, Krogh & Lykke-Olesen, 2007, Holtzblatt & Beyer, 2013, Schmidt, 2011).

For this assignment, we had record our unbiased observations of users in a library context.  I observed the library entrance from the inside, and the library front desk area for about 20 minutes each.  My observation notes may be viewed in the previous post.

The main take-aways from my observations at the entrance was that the bulletin board in the entry way is important since so many people glanced or stopped to look at it, making it an important feature of the library.  Also, though it was only recorded briefly, I’ve experienced problems and have observed other people having problems with the entryway mat.  It needs to be resolved once and for all since it is not easily and directly observable to the library staff to help with it when necessary.

My observations at the front desk area demonstrated how efficient and familiar the librarian is with the patrons and knows what questions to ask when a patron is not recognized.  From the patron’s perspective, using recycled paper at the printer is a great idea, but needs to be made more obvious.  But, from the librarian’s perspective, it was easy to see how difficult it was to try to get anything done with all the interruptions, so some work space strategies to improve productivity with all the interruptions would be worth problem-solving (I’m sure it’s something that is addressed).

Recording the library patron’s activity for this exercise forced me suspend judgment and focus exclusively on the patron’s actions.  This revealed important behavior patterns that would be helpful in future planning to improve the user experience in the library.  While I suspect a consistent methodology would be significant, this type of exercise could be valuable for all library staff to participate in to provide them with the knowledge and experience in observation to contribute to an open and flexible library environment focused on meeting both staff and patron needs.  Staff could easily be trained to record and share observations, on a prefabricated form to make it easy to fill out and share with administrators.  Sharing the observations will make the most of their efforts (Schmidt, 2011).


Clearleft. (n.d.). Contextual inquiry. Retrieved from

Eriksson, E., Krogh, P. G., Lykke-Olesen, A. (2007). Inquiry into libraries: A design approach to children’s interactive library. Retrieved from

Holtzblatt, K. & Beyer, H. (2013). Contextual Design. In: Soegaard, Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.. Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from

Schmidt, A. (2011). Getting to know your patrons: The user experience. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2012). Contextual inquiry. Retrieved from


PS…here’s a great research article that uses cooperative inquiry:

Druin,A. (2011). Children as codesigners of new technologies: Valuing the imagination to transform what is possible. New Directions for Youth Development, 2010(128), p 35-43. Retrieved from