“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things,” observed influential anthropologist Margaret Mead. Following this wisdom, it is crucial that we pay attention to what people say and what people do in order to get a clear picture of what really happens. A Contextual Inquiry places you in the midst of a person’s environment where you can inquire about his or her experiences in context as they are happening. Consequently, input comes directly from the people who have the most knowledge, saving you from making assumptions about how and why things are done.
Even when you do have some background knowledge of a person’s role or situation, it helps to approach as a novice or to think of yourself as an apprentice. At the same time, bear in mind that you are trying to gather useful information for a specific purpose, so keep the design challenge in view as you interact with participants.