20-790: Human-Computer Interaction in eCommerce, Summer, 2004

Homework # 2: Contextual Inquiry

Start: Wed, July 14
Hand in: Wed, July 21

Group Project
Counts for 15% of final grade

In this assignment, you will practice using the Contextual Inquiry (CI) and Design techniques. Unfortunately, we won't be able to do a "real" contextual inquiry of someone performing a real task. As a stand-in, you will perform a contextual inquiry of a person performing a task that is similar to ones for your project.

  1. Decide on the focus of your CI, so you can determine what parts of the design you particularly need information about.
  2. Find one person to interview who is not in the class, preferably someone who is familiar with the topic that your web site will sell. For example, if you are doing home-buying, then try to find someone who has recently purchased a home. One way to find candidate people is to go to laundromats, malls, parks, and other places where people tend to be waiting around anyway.
  3. You will want to try to interview the person in their own context (e.g., home, work, car) as they perform a task that is related to what your eCommerce site will be for. (If you find your person in a laundromat, you may have to do your CI there, possibly on your laptop.) You are going to do the CI with them about activities they do in connection with your website/business. The CI should be 30 minutes to 2 hours.
    Example: Find out how people buy clothing from paper catalogues—what’s important to them, and what they do. For this, you might sit with a homeowner, in her home, as she peruses her catalogues, noting which ones she keeps, where she stores them, how she reads them, and follow through on the actual order process, noting all tasks such as keeping notes or marking up the catalogue, process of ordering (phone, email, postal, etc.), payment, shipping, handling returns, etc. You would also go with the shopper to look at her closet, to ask her about which clothing she buys from catalogues and which she buys from stores, and why she chooses each method.
  4. Everyone in your group should attend the interview. If possible, one person should record the session using a video camera and/or tape recorder (see below if you need to borrow equipment). All members should take notes. You should turn in detailed notes, or even better, a transcript. Important : number the lines on your written observations and notes, so you can refer to your data by line number in your discussion and models.
  5. As a group, discuss the results of your interviews, and create models of what you learned (see below). As you model, be sure to link ideas in the models with the data from your notes by citing line numbers.
  6. Brainstorm ideas for your site with your group, building on data and models.

  7. Write up a 1 to 2-page report of your contextual interviews and design exercise. What was your focus? Who were the people you interviewed? What questions did you pursue? How did the interviews go? What did you learn? Did you revise your ideas of the users' goals or would you now re-write your user scenario? Did you get ideas for making your site useful to users? (You may list design ideas, functionality ideas, content or application ideas, if any.)
  8. Attach to your report, for each user, your notes, a flow model, cultural model, and (rough) sequence model. (These models will be explained in Lecture 4). Include physical or artifact models only if relevant. These can be sketched on paper, and do NOT need to be especially neat. Please give us copies rather than the originals. Your models must cite your data using line numbers, times or other indicators.

Check list of what to turn in:

We will be grading from the hardcopy, so be sure to turn a hardcopy in on-time in class.


Students can "check out" recording equipment from school. There are camcorders and tape recorders available. I sent in a class roster, so hopefully everyone can get what you need. The policy is stated here: http://www.cmu.edu/computing/instructional-tech/NewFiles/studentuse.html, and the contact info can be found here: http://www.cmu.edu/computing/instructional-tech/NewFiles/placeorder.html.   (Thanks to Cindy Lu for discovering this!)

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