Usability Terms Explained: Contextual Design – Part I

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What is Contextual Design?

The Contextual Design methodology, developed by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holzblatt, is a User Centered Design process used to gather information and understand how users work in order to create user interface designs that are complementary to users and the process of them accomplishing their goals. According to Beyer and Holzblatt Contextual Design "uses extensive field data as the foundation for understanding user's and business' needs". It incorporates extensive field studies and other ethnographic methods for gathering data relevant to the product. Contextual Design is used as a method of rationalizing workflows and using this data in the creation of system and human-computer interface designs. In a sense it turns traditional feature-driven models of creating new interface designs on its head by focusing on the context of use instead of on the pre-conceived importance of certain features. Contextual Design is a process that happens, in order, in the following hierarchical steps: Contextual Inquiry, Interpretation, Data Consolidation, Visioning, Storyboarding, User Environment Design, and Prototyping.

What is Contextual Inquiry?

Contextual Inquiry lies at the very core of Contextual Design and it happens at the very beginning of the design process. Essentially it is done through one-on-one field interviews conducted in the natural working (or living) environment of interview subjects as they go about their business. The goal here is to find out, first hand, what people actually do and why they do it that way. In user interface design projects, this may involve observing users handling a particular UI of a web or software application while performing a routine task. During the observation the interviewer fills the role of an apprentice learning from the inquiry subject as if he or she were the apprentice's master. The observer must take care to keep interferences at a minimum, at least during the observation. However, since the goal of Contextual Inquiry is to understand why something is done or not then crucial interruptions are permitted. Following observation is an interview with the subject and this is where other questions may be addressed.

What happens during the Interpretation phase?

During the interpretation phase the data from all the interviews is analyzed and detailed work models are created in order to ascertain context of use and aspects of work that matter for the user interface design team. What matters here is looking at the interviews from a macro birds-eye-view level for key insights across the board. In Contextual Design there are five work models used to model details of the working environment and work tasks. The Flow model is used to represent the coordination, communication, interaction, roles, and responsibilities of the various people involved in a particular work practice. The Sequence model is used to represent the steps users of an UI design have to go through to accomplish a certain activity, including breakdowns. The Culture model is used to represent the norms, influences, and pressures that are present in the work environment. The Artifact model is used to represent the documents or other physical things that are created while working or are used to support the work. Artifacts often have a structure or styling that could represent a user's way of structuring the work. The physical model is used to represent the actual physical environment where the tasks are accomplished. This includes looking at things like office layout, network topology or a user interface design's layout tools on a computer display.

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Usability Terms Explained: Contextual Design – Part I

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This article was published on 2010/10/22