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Inquiry: Part One of the Toolbox

toolbox With the inquiry method usability evaluators obtain information about users' likes, dislikes, needs, and understanding of the system by talking to them, observing them using the system in real work (not for the purpose of usability testing), or letting them answer questions verbally or in written form. Numerous methods exist for doing inquiries.

Field Observation (Ethnographic Study)

Field observation is simply observing users at their work using your web site. Observing them in their own environment may help pinpoint problems that you might not think of in your own office or even in a testing lab. However, even though a skilled observer can be subtle, the very nature of the observation process will likely change the way the user works.

Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry is a structured field interviewing method. It involves conversation as well as observation. Contextual inquiries requires a high degree of skill from the usability specialist, in order to ask appropriate questions without interrupting the participants' work flow or influencing their responses. Sometimes two usability specialists are used for a contextual inquiry project, one to conduct the interview, and one to observe and record participant behavior. You can discover unmet needs and understand existing behaviors in greater depth with this method.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are formal, structured events where you directly interact with users, asking them to voice their opinions and experiences regarding your site.

...focus groups are very poor vehicles for testing the usability of a site. A public demonstration does not come close to replicating the actual environment of a user navigating a web site. Consequently the suggestions of people in focus groups do not necessarily carry much weight. Sadly focus groups are often used to prove that a particular approach does or doesn't work...a much more appropriate way to study the usability of a prototype or post-launch web site is to conduct individual user testing. - Rosenfeld and Morville, "Information Architecture" p. 171-172.

Also see: The Use and Misuse of Focus Groups by Jakob Nielsen.


Surveys are ad hoc interviews with users, where a set list of questions is asked and the users' responses recorded. Surveys differ from questionnaires in that they are interactive interviews, although not structured like contextual inquiries nor formally scheduled and organized like focus groups.

Questionnaires are written lists of questions that you distribute to your users. Often, questionnaires are used after sites are launched to assess customer satisfaction with the product. Such questionnaires often identify usability issues that should have been caught before the site goes live. Questionnaires are an inexpensive way of gathering a great deal of information from a large number of users. Most of the cost involved is in designing (or printing, if it's offline) the questionnaire.

Journaled Sessions

Journaled sessions are where users conduct usability tests in remote locations. Users perform several tasks with the prototype, much as in formal usability tests, and their actions are captured with the journalizing software. Actual actual mouse movements or interactions with dialog boxes and menu items are captured.

Self-reporting Logs

Self-reporting logs are paper-and-pencil journals in which users are requested to log their actions and observations while interacting with a product. Like journaled sessions, this technique allows you to perform user evaluation at a distance.

Screen Snapshots

Snapshots are a method where the user takes screen snapshots at different times during the execution of a task or series of tasks. Like most user testing, you provide the user with the site and have him or her perform various user tasks with on it. In addition, you provide the user with a snapshot program and instructions for when and how to take the screen snapshots. This technique is best used in the early to middle stages of development, when you have some working site to be evaluated but are not to the point of requiring full testing. Snapshots are most often used in conjunction with other remote inquiry methods, such as journaled sessions or self-reporting logs.

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