Understanding users’ personal, physical and social context (Part 2)

Usability | September 2018

illustration with highlighted home as metaphor for contextual user researchContextual user research at HCID Open Day 2018: the practicalities of conducting research outside of the lab

This is the second of two articles on contextual user research, based on a talk by Lesley Fosh for the HCID Open Day 2018 at City, University of London. Part 1 looked at the reasons for running user research in context and what you can expect to find out. Here, Lesley discusses the practicalities of conducting user research outside of the lab.

Contextual user research helps us understand the reality of how products are used and how they fit into users’ real lives. This includes users’:

  • Personal context – their real-life thoughts, feelings and motivations
  • Physical context – where they use the app or website
  • Social context – how the people around them affect their experience.

Most types of research can be conducted in the field, but when it comes to evaluating products and services we tend to invite users into the lab for testing. We’ve found that evaluating systems in the user’s own environment can reveal insights that wouldn’t otherwise be found.


Here are some key things to consider when planning contextual user research:

Supplement lab findings

If you are seeking insights into how a product or prototype is used, contextual sessions can work well in conjunction with lab testing. At System Concepts we’ll often do a round of usability testing in the lab to understand any journey or UI issues, then take it to the field to collect the contextual data. Or, if little is known about a system in its natural environment, we might to do the contextual user research sessions first, and use the findings to plan realistic lab sessions.

Let the participant lead

There may be tasks or journeys you want to investigate, but you can learn more about the reality of how your product is used by letting the user lead the way, where possible. For example, if you want to learn about how users browse or search, it can be more interesting to let the user choose what they want to look for. This creates a more realistic scenario for you to learn from.

Read Part 1 of this series: the reasons for running user research in context – and what you can expect to find out

Keep the technology simple

The equipment you use in the field doesn’t need to be high-tech, in fact it can be better to keep the technology simple. Our mobile lab set up includes a visualiser, laptop and webcam. However, it’s a good idea to have back up options for your set up, as you don’t always know how your configuration will work until you get there. If you need an internet connection, we would always recommend bringing a dongle or a way to hotspot so you don’t have to rely on connecting to your participant or host’s wifi.

Prepare for limited space

If your research is taking place in a workplace, make sure to arrange in advance to use a meeting room. If that’s not possible, try to set up your equipment around a table or desk in a quiet area.

If your research is taking place in a participant’s home or a public place, you’re not guaranteed to have a convenient place to set up. Some of our sessions in users’ homes have had to take place on a sofa or on the edge of a bed – so be prepared to improvise if there doesn’t turn out to be as much space as you’d hoped. This is another reason for keeping your equipment simple and flexible!

icons showing happy netral and sad facesRespect your participant’s space and time

Taking part in user research can be a new experience for many participants, and we always want to make them feel as comfortable as possible. This is particularly the case when turning up to do research in a participant’s home or workplace.

We find that two consultants is an ideal number of people for contextual user research, but sometimes we bring along an additional team member to observe and take notes. Each member of the research team should have a defined role – for example, leading the research, setting up the equipment, and taking notes.

We always make sure to tell the participant in advance how many people will be showing up. We have each member of the team introduce themselves and their roles at the beginning, to be transparent about why each of us is there, and to build a rapport with the participant.

We also take care to be mindful of the participant’s time. It will take a little time at the start and end of your session to set up and pack your notes and equipment away, so make sure this is factored in when you schedule your session. Make sure you don’t turn up earlier or leave later than you said you would.

Be prepared for interruptions

boy with megaphone as metaphor for interruptionFinally, as carefully as you’ve planned your discussion guide and session timings, it’s likely that the session will deviate from what you’ve prepared for.

Outside of the lab, a participant’s life doesn’t stop because you’re running a session – they might need to tend to their children or a person they’re caring for, and there might be things that need doing at home or work. For contextual user research, it’s better to allow participants to take breaks from the session to do what they need to do (within reason), so plan in a little extra time for these interruptions. When they come back, quickly remind them of what you were doing before the break and continue where you left off.

If you’re planning to do user research in context, we’d love to hear from you

Speech bubbleGet expert assistance with contextual user research

Contact System Concepts’ team of experienced UX consultants

More like this

HCID Open Day 2018 – key takeaways

Our 6 key takeaways from the HCID 2018 event at City University, London...

Our 6 key takeaways from the HCID 2018 event at City University, London...

Voice interfaces in home healthcare

A look at the potential use of voice interfaces in home healthcare, including key design considerations...

A look at the potential use of voice interfaces in home healthcare, including key design considerations...