When conducting a survey, we ask questions about what people often do and have asked in the past (for example, in a survey). However, human memory can be incredible.

The study, designed using contextual questions, seeks to overcome this issue by looking at people in their context. This allows the researcher to gain a better understanding of what users are doing in their environment.

What is used

Use syntax query

  • Announce product or service development (formatted or repeated review)
  • Create a new feature for your digital product

the same Ethnographic studies, Context Query examines how your users interact with their natural environment, rather than just focusing on your digital product. The contextual question involves an in-depth study of a small sample of people.


The benefits of contextual questions include:

  • Provides sophisticated and rich insights into how and why people interact with their environment, often unexplained causes
  • Reduces memory problems – when people use their memory when they are away from the environment, the result is distorted
  • It is usually held by a small number of participants


Context queries include:

  • The contextual question is not intended to tell you that your digital product is effective.
  • Because it is so dependent on the researcher’s interpretation and skills, it can be realistic.

How to perform a contextual question

Uses contextual question observations and interviews. The duration of a contextual question can vary from one hour to several days, depending on the availability of participants and the complexity of the process you are trying to understand. The 4 basic principles of planning and conducting contextual questions are:

1. Context

Do your research in the natural world to understand the user in the real world. Recent physical environment, as well as the effects of psychological, historical, cultural and social conditions, cannot be overstated.

2. Attention

Be clear about the goals and objectives of your research and what you want to achieve from the session.

3. Partnership

As mentioned in the last point, it is important to know what you want to get out of the session. But you still have to be flexible and open. Participants should feel that they can guide the researcher to what they consider to be important aspects of their lives.

4. Interpretation

The result of a contextual question is a common understanding of the participant’s work or other experiences. This is achieved by looking at the participant’s world, asking questions and building awareness, asking for clarification and confirmation until they have made a general picture.

Understand the context

As a researcher, your goal is to understand how the participant and the various forces influence their actions, practices, and processes. These external forces can be as complex as their physical environment, their family or co-workers, and their environment. Internal forces include their attitudes, values, knowledge, attitudes, and motivations.

By observation and interview, it may be useful to design interventions that are often subtle or invisible but are not.

Introduce yourself and explain what will happen, making the participants feel calm like any other research. Discuss confidentiality, what to expect and whether you plan to record their actions. Make sure you keep notes.

Explain to the participant how the session works:

  • They look at their work to learn, for example, their work. Your role is to monitor, learn and understand as they perform their tasks.
  • Sometimes they stop asking for explanations and explanations.
  • If you interrupt at an inconvenient time, they should be notified and choose to wait before answering the question (e.g. you want to complete an action first)

When to stop asking questions

If so, you must discontinue the participant:

  • They do what they don’t understand right away
  • You seem to understand the process but you want to verify with the participant

Know that your participant is going to interview mode. It is important to guide them back to work as often as possible.

In the process, the researcher and the participant develop a common definition of the work. Review your notes at the end of the session and present to the participant your understanding of the process being reviewed. They can explain and correct your understanding of their work.

As with any quality data analysis, use a systematic approach to analyzing the data, e.g. Theme analysis. Since the analysis can be realistic, it is good for 2 researchers to conduct the analysis and compare the results. You can bring together a multidisciplinary team to share the results, interpret what they mean, and create practical recommendations for design solutions.

Example Exploring interruptions and distractions when completing a task – Context query

Borgutts et al. (2020),TimeToFocus ፡ Response to interruptions interrupts distractions and shortens interruptions.

It is common to discontinue completing a task. This can be harmful, for example.

  • Reduce efficiency
  • Increase errors
  • Stimulating stress

Researchers aim to better understand how people deal with distractions and distractions while working. Interview with 9 office staff working in public administration of public universities.

Select a recurring and common task for all participants. Of course, handling the claim often requires termination because additional resources are often required, either physically or digitally. The sessions last 2 to 2.5 hours and are audio and video recorded.

Each session began with an interview. This helped the participant feel comfortable and helped the researchers understand the participant’s role and strategies for coping with interruptions. Then ask participants to speak out when asking for an expense and think out loud (link). The researcher observed the participant working. When the researchers summarized the findings, they asked for confirmation or explanation. If any part of the process needs further clarification, the researchers consulted the video to help them gain a common understanding of the work experience.

Researchers found that although participants were trying to find additional resources to complete the data entry to process the cost request, they often needed unimaginable physical and digital resources. They then decided on the spot to either resume the work or extend it until further notice.

Interestingly, discontinuation of a function to obtain additional digital inputs has been observed in a different way. Participants are more likely to stop working to bring digital resources. They realize that it is often easier and faster to find digital resources, but in reality, participants often spend more time than they thought they would.

This contextual question provides three main design implications used to design digital products to help control online disruptions.

More information and resources

Health Foundation (2014) for more information How important the context is when preparing an intervention

Describing an example of a GOV.UK user research blog Using a question in the context of practice

GOV.UK User Research Blog ‘How to use contextual research to improve GOV.UK Notify

Vitanen (2011),User-focused clinical IT system design survey questionnaire

Examples of contextual questions in digital health

Herman et al. (2017),What about your usage? Field Survey Writing for Homeowners Information for Residential Electricity Information‘. Authors should consider the context question aloud to find out how users interpret the graphs of their use of electricity on the web.

Vanhoff et al. (2018)Lighting on an unknown reality in patients with severe organ transplantation‘. In this context question, the team examined how transplanted patients control their health behaviors and medications. As part of their recommendations, they argue that digital self-government intervention may play an additional role in face-to-face interaction.

Ho and others (2013)Needs and workflow assessment before implementing digital pathology infrastructure for US Air Force Medical Service‘. Example of using a questionnaire to identify the needs and requirements of a pathologist in order to explore the potential of developing a digital pathology system.