Leveraging innovation through contextual design

Hi all !

On this post I’ll cover how, from my point of view,  you can leverage innovation through contextual design on your company. My main motivation to write this article was to retain some concepts regarding contextual design and maybe inspire others to follow this approach for leveraging innovation in their own companies.

What is contextual design ?

Contextual design is a user centric design process that captures data from customers in the field where people are living/working and applies these findings into a final product.Basically what this means is that contextual designs tries to understand how the users work, and what they really want, and then uses this knowledge to deliver a meaningful product.


So you see, contextual design could really help Dilbert here.  🙂 This is the most common scenario. However, the same principles described on this article can be used to improve internal projects and ways of work.

Contextual design overview phases

Contextual design can be implemented through a group of phases :

  1. Find out what matters to users by characterizing what they do.
  2. Think up new ideas and directions
  3. Redesign user activities and technologies to provide value
  4. Design a prototype and iterate the way it works with the users

Each of these steps can be divided on the phases below:


An implementation of contextual design doesn’t need to go through all of them and typically  organizations choose the ones that best facilitate the process and leave others out.

I won’t explain in detail all these phases. I will just focus on these 6: Contextual Inquiry,Interpretation session,Data Consolidation,Visioning, Story-boarding, User Environment Design,Prototyping.

You can find detailed information about each one of these phases, either on the links below or on this book.

Contextual Inquiry

On this phase, we observe the user behavior while the user is working. We partner with the user, letting their work and the issues they encounter guide the interview.We should try to learn what users actually do, why they do it that way, latent needs, and core values. This phase is really a paradigm changer, because typically we would either just present the user with a couple of questions to find out what he wants and how he actually does it , or we would try to infer what the user does/wants from the description of the users daily activity.

Interpretation session

After our observations, in the next 48 hours we should analyze and interpret the interview data through work models used to model the work tasks and capture the details of the working environment.Contextual design methodology suggests we can use 5 models for this effect :

  • Flow model – represents interactions between people on their work practice
    flowmodel2Notation meaning :

    • Circles = Users/roles
    • Rectangles = Intent/Artifact
    • Red Lightning = Breakdown
  • Sequence model – represents steps the users go to accomplish a certain activities
  • Cultural model – represents the norms and influences of the work environment
  • Artifact model – documents created while working. Artifacts reveal how people think about their work – the concepts they use and how they organize them to get the work done
  • Physical model – physical environment where the tasks are accomplished. Should also reveal physical constraints of distance and timezones. Example : It can either be a map of the workspace or a more global map, displaying  offices in different countries that must work together.

Data consolidation

After having analyzed our interviews using the work models from the previous phase, now it is time to bring data from individual interviews together to put in evidence common patterns and structures without losing individual variation. To this end we should build an affinity diagram, whose purpose is to consolidate our work models.

This type of diagram will bring together issues and insights across all customers into a wall-sized, hierarchical design to reveal the scope of the problem. This diagram should be built using at maximum 2 sessions. In the end of the process we should come up with something like the picture below:


The yellow rectangles represent user activities, whereas the parts above are generalizations inferred from these activities.


On this phase we will create stories of how new product concepts/technologies support the work practice. We first start by reviewing data to identify key issues.  After this data walking session, we should do a visioning session during which the visioning team generates a variety of new product concepts by telling stories of different usage scenarios.During this session, a vision is built that should include the system, its delivery, and support structures to make the new work practice successful.

The image bellow is a typical example of the result of a visioning session :



The story-boarding phase will detail how people will work with the new system, using the various visions identified on the previous phase. The picture bellow is a typical example of the result from this phase :


User environment design

The objectives of these phase are :

  1. show each part of the system and how it supports the user’s work.
  2. show exactly what function is available in each part, and how the user gets to and from other parts of the system.
  3. make sure the structure is right for the user
  4. plan how to roll out new features in a series of releases

We can look onto this phase as a detailed approach to the previous story-boarding phase. As you could see from the previous phase example , on the story-boarding phase, we tell a story of how a user interacts with the application, but on user environment phase, we detail what should be the real functionality behind every depicted interface. The picture bellow illustrates this principle.



On this final phase, we test the structure of a User Environment Design and initial user interface ideas by prototyping. Prototyping is done trough mockups of the system using notes and hand drawn paper to represent windows, dialog boxes, buttons, and menus.

The picture below is an example of a prototype built during this phase:


Final thoughts

As you could see from the phases description, contextual design can be useful not only to improve ways of work within your company, but also a great tool to build new products.

Having visionless teams and a motivationless environment are just 2 of the 5 innovation sins your company can fall into. Don’t let this happen, by empowering your teams and giving them the tools to excel on their field. The usage of contextual design can be great not only to improve customer projects, but also, to improve and structure the internal innovation process.


[1] Wikipedia; Contextual design ;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contextual_design

[2] Interaction design foundation; Contextual design ;http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/contextual_design.html