Contextual Design
Contextual Design

Contextual Design is customer-centered design approach in which each step is grounded in gathering customer data via combination of diverse methods. It is a holistic tool as it supplies fluid steps for transition starting from customer-center data through data interpretation and design implications to design direction. This inclusive and concrete process is well received in interdisciplinary organizations that deal with customer-centered design challenges.

The seven proposed steps for Contextual Design are contextual inquiry, interpretation, data consolidation, visioning, storyboarding, user environment design, and prototyping.

(1) Contextual Inquiry discloses about the individual’s work and their approaches to work through one-on-one field interviews conducted in the user’s work or life space.

(2) Interpretation Session debriefs the data accumulated through Contextual Inquiry by utilizing the framework of the five work models to capture knowledge about work. The five work model to present customer work practice are flow, sequence, artifact, culture and physical.

(3) Data Consolidation combines work models of the target market or population. Develop personas and reframe ideas.

(4) Visioning creates new product and system concepts based on customer data and technological possibilities.

(5) Storyboarding uses stills or sketches to illustrate possible scenarios of how target personas or customers will interact with the new product or system.

(6) User Environment Design enhances customer’s work by documentation of its structure, function and flow between the places in the system.

(7) Prototyping extracts feedback from customer on the proposed design.

Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer founders of InContext Design created Contextual Design in order to better understand population needs through field research by uncovering rich market characterizations and personas.

Advantages: supplies rich qualitative data about how people work and use systems. Provides holistic overview of customer population. The five work model diagrams uncovers present systems, portraying their relationships, inconsistencies, redundancies, and omissions.

Disadvantages: inadequate for conducting statistical inference. Requires quantitative sizing information through follow-up surveys. Resource-intensive – factor in large amount of time to spend with customer.

Case Studies/Examples

InContext was established in 1992 where Holtzblatt and Beyer worked with numerous organizations from a range of industries including automotive, business systems, consumer electronics, developer systems, education, enterprise and CRM applications, insurance, medical devices & information, mobile devices, professional information & services, retail websites, software for devices, and telecommunications.

Microsoft utilized Contextual Design to examine users participating in newsgroups, web forums, wikis, Open Source communities, and user group meetings. Microsoft strives to build trust with users. They accomplished by redesigning their online support portal where users interact Microsoft support engineers.

Cisco an American multinational technology company took customer-centered approach to build Cisco Finesse application. It tackles customer concerns by streamlining the work of contact center agents and supervisors.


Beyer, Hugh, and Karen Holtzblatt. Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems. 1st ed. San Francisco, California: Morgan Kaufmann, 1998. 496.

Holtzblatt, Karen. “Contextual Design.” InContext. 2015.

Martin, Bella, and Bruce M. Hanington. Universal Methods of Design 100 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2012. 44.

Van Boeijen, Annemiek, Jaap Daalhuizen, Jelle Zijlstra, and Roos Van Der Schoor. Delft Design Guide: Design Strategies and Methods. BIS, 2014. 41.