How does Contextual Design differ from other design methodologies?

How does Contextual Design differ

The core concepts of Contextual Design have remained stable for over a decade and are unlikely to change fundamentally. However, the method is flexible enough to adopt or adapt techniques that allow teams to collect and use user knowledge more efficiently. For example, using consolidated work models and personas can augment and complement the Contextual Inquiry interview process and speed up gaining deep understanding of users.

Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer developed the Versions contextual design methodology while at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in the 1980s. They were both designers and researchers, and they envisioned a design process that would integrate useful practices from their respective fields. They aimed to make this design process useful to product development teams in commercial settings.

Contextual Design begins with observation of users in their natural context without interference or guidance. The data gathered from this observation helps the team understand what people do, how they do it, and why they do it. This data is a critical source of insight into how a new product should perform.

How does Contextual Design differ from other design methodologies?

Following the user observation, the team creates an understanding of the problem domain through an Affinity Diagram and work models. The team also conducts a visioning session to set the project direction and define what kind of solution the product should provide. After visioning, the team can start to invent solutions using technology to transform users’ work practices. This process, known as contextual inquiry, focuses the conversations around how the product will help users get their jobs done rather than on what features the design could include or what capabilities it must have.

Once the high-level design response has been framed, the team can proceed to structurally design the system through storyboards and a User Environment Design, and then validate their design by creating and testing paper prototypes. These early iterations ensure the right function is included in the initial release of user stories for Agile development and that the final solution is based on real user needs.

The Contextual Design process can be combined with the user-centered Agile development techniques described above. This allows the team to gain a deep understanding of the user through Contextual Inquiry interviews and the Affinity Diagram and to incorporate that knowledge into their user stories for each iteration of Agile development. The consolidated work model and personas also help to frame these user stories so they are focused on solving the right problems.

One important thing to note is that the contextual design process tends to be more resource-heavy upfront, at least in terms of time and personnel. The observation phase alone may take a few days to a week, and then there are several weeks needed for analysis and consolidation of the results. Teams that follow this approach will need to be able to commit to this level of upfront research, or they will need to partner with an agency or consulting business that can deliver this service in-house.

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