It’s a classic! Why wouldn’t you have a conversation with a stakeholder/user/customer to better understand their thoughts, emotions and motivations?

Yet a lot can go wrong in an interview: leading questions, binary questions, complicated questions etc.

Adapted from Michael Barry, Point Forward
The Shape of An Interview, adapted from Michael Barry, Point Forward

“An interview” can have some scary connotations for people, and personally, the term feels.. impersonal; and it may not be an accurate description of the method. In their book Contextual Design, Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt have describe an ethnographic interviewing technique that they call contextual inquiry.

Contextual Inquiry is based on a master-apprentice model of learning: observing and asking questions of the user as if she is the master craftsman, and the interviewer the new apprentice.



Context- Rather than interviewing in a clean white room, go to the physical environment relevant to what you’re designing for. Observing people in their natural environment, filled with artifacts they use each day, can bring the all-important details of their behaviors to light.

Tone- One of collaborative exploration with the user (master-apprentice).

Interpretation- Here lies what currently interests me most. Much of the work of the designer is reading between the lines of facts gathered about users’ behaviors, their environment, and what they say..

Focus- Rather than coming to interviews with a set questionnaire of letting the interview wander aimlessly, the designer needs to subtly direct the interview so as to capture data relevant to design issues.


  • Shorten the interview process- Interviews as short as one hour can be sufficient to gather the necessary user data, provided that a sufficient number of interviews (about six well-selected user for each hypothesized role or type) are scheduled.
  • Use smaller design teams- It is more effective to conduct interviews sequentially with the same designers in each interview, allowing the members to most effectively analyze and synthesize the user data.
  • Identify goals first- Ethnographic interviews should first identify and prioritize use goals before determining the tasks that relate to these goals.