My opinion on Contextual Design

Now I’ve posted about the way Contextual Design works, let me now tell you something about what I think of Contextual Design (I want to get this out of my system before I resume learning the materials for the test).

First of all, I think it’s cool. I hear that people actually use this in real companies, on real products, and that this has produced some spectacular results. Furthermore, by doing it myself I find that I really do get a better understanding of the user’s work, and that I really do think differently about product innovation (it is actually “work redesign”, not product innovation). Furthermore, even though the method is costly in times of money and resources, it can easily be adapted to the needs of the design team and the restrictions imposed by the company.

But of course, I wouldn’t be myself if I would be a bit skeptical about this. Why my skepticism? Well, first of all, I think it’s kinda strange that we only learn this method. In reply to my request there was a brief overview in class on other methods with the same goals, but as an Academic person I want to know what other people think the drawbacks, downsides and exceptions are. That way I can get a better understanding and appreciation of the method. But since we have little time, all of it is focused on doing it ourselves without really thinking about it. (This is not entirely true, because we are encouraged to reflect upon the methods and change them to meet our needs. But still there’s this basic assumption that “Contextual Design is the right way to do it”)
This becomes apparent when I hear some of my fellow students say after a three hour focus-setting meeting: “This is so useless, I already knew this!” I think that there’s some hindsight blindness involved here: Of course you feel like you came up with the only reasonable conclusion after 3 hours of modeling and discussing it.
Contextual Design seems to be the right way to do it. But there’s no real evidence that it’s really useful. In empirical user studies you have a hypothesis and you get a clear answer (with measurable confidence) of whether your invention was an improvement, and how much. With Contextual Design, you never know whether your final solution is better than what you would have come up with if you used another method or just common sense (it feels better, but there’s no evidence). An interesting digression: Iris van Rooij pointed me to the fact that if you take a long-run view of hypothesis testing, the same problem occurs.
You could in theory do an analytical study on the “effectiveness of Contextual Design”, by comparing the results of different design teams. The problem, however, then shifts to the flexibility of the method. There is no single way of doing Contextual Design. But are adjustments actual improvements? You never know for sure.

Despite my skepticism, I think that Contextual Design is a very useful method. I really feel that this method has a definite merit, and I think it would be a nice challenge to do some analytical research on this method, clarifying the areas of my concerns.
Furthermore, since this is a method that enforces adequate, human-centered innovation, I think that the Eindhoven University should teach this method to all the students. If you claim that you are the University “Where Innovation Starts“, you should live up to this title!

2 thoughts on “My opinion on Contextual Design”

  1. Good to hear some feedback on the contextual design right there :):

    The largest limitation there though is in the limitations of the method. How do you go about and uncover processes that cannot be observed in time frames of hours (or days for that matter)? How do you uncover such volatile and covert processes as research, innovation, etc? Holzblatt and Beyer only suggest probing a lot: forming hypotheses and get them confirmed or disconfirmed by asking employees even more questions, as well as by assessing a large sample of people to get a good cross-section of the processes involved. I do have my doubts there. Sure, contextual interviewing and contextual design work well when you want to map task-based activity, but less overt behaviour is just difficult to uncover. You’ll have to resort to other methods to reach that kind of information.

  2. Oh, by the way, I do agree that this method definitely ought to be taught in Eindhoven as well :D.

Leave a Reply