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Rapid Contextual Design
A How-To Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design

Ubiquity, Volume 2005 Issue March | BY Karen Holtzblatt , Jessamyn Burns Wendell , Shelley Wood 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

[Note: The authors are with InContext Enterprises.]

Today companies want to infuse more user data into their processes. But if we analyze the "right" way to do customer-centered design for any project we may be dismayed at the time and resources it takes. And, companies are also resistant to changing their own development processes. So what to do?

Over the years, we at InContext Enterprises1 have worked on many projects of many types, with many teams in many different organizations. Contextual Design (CD), our customer-centered design process, has been used in numerous ways depending on the needs of the project. This works because Contextual Design often has been called a scaffolding for user-centered front-end design-techniques can be used or skipped and different techniques can be added.

Rapid Contextual Design is a guide for practitioners of the most frequently-used CD techniques. Like any new process adoption, certain techniques are adopted first and others come later. This handbook focuses on the core Contextual Design techniques that most easily drive customer data into the corporate design process. So, you should be able to use and adapt these techniques to your particular situation.

Rapid Contextual Design presents our strategies for getting user data into projects. Rapid CD. We offer several viable Rapid CD design processes to guide you in choosing what CD techniques to use for your specific project:

  • Lightning Fast. Characterize your user population and vision a solution in one to four weeks
  • Lightning Fast +. Characterize your user population, vision a solution, mock it up in paper, and test it in four to eight weeks
  • Focused Rapid CD. Characterize your user population, collect and consolidate sequences for a task analysis, vision a solution, work out the details by storyboarding, mock it up in paper, and test it in six to ten weeks

To help you understand how to use CD techniques on your projects, Rapid Contextual Design contains step-by-step instructions of how to use each technique, real examples of user data from our clients' and our own projects, sample schedules, and tips for using the process. We also discuss many of the issues that team members have raised over the years. And because some of you are integrating CD with other techniques like personas, Agile or Extreme Programming (XP), and use case generation, we include a discussion of how CD connects to these methods throughout this handbook.

In Chapter 5 we discuss what CD calls the interpretation session. Many teams go into the field and conduct observational interviews based on Contextual Inquiry-an ethnographic approach to field interviewing tailored for technology design. But then the team does not know how to effectively process or leverage the large amount of qualitative data that is generated by the interview. In this excerpt from Chapter 5, The Contextual Interview Interpretation Session, we describe step-by-step how to run a disciplined debriefing session after a field interview with a user. This debrief-the interpretation session-allows the team to share findings, build a common understanding of the user, and capture all the data relevant to the project in a form that will characterize the population to be supported and drive the resulting redesign.

Chapter 5-like all of the chapters in Rapid Contextual Design-presents and analyzes actual project data gathered by teams and used to redesign their products. For a frame of reference for what you'll see in this chapter, here's a description of the companies and projects illustrated.


eChalk is the leading provider of affordable, web-based communication platforms specifically designed for K-12 schools in the United States. The eChalk product is designed to enhance collaboration between students, teachers, parents, and school administrators. It provides features such as e-mail, calendaring, digital lockers for file storage and sharing, a school directory, teacher and class web pages, and online sharing of classroom assignments and information. The eChalk team has been using Contextual Design for several years; the data reflected here was gathered for eChalk version 3.0.


Agilent Technologies is a global company and one of the leading providers of analytical instruments. These devices are used in the chemical, petrochemical, and pharmaceutical industries to determine the content and purity of products. The data used for examples in Rapid Contextual Design come from two projects that Agilent contracted. The first project focused on understanding and documenting how analytical labs run their business. This information was used to develop a consistent software architecture to support work flow processes that are key to the success of a laboratory. The second project built on this original work and focused on quality control laboratories in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.


Apropos Technology is an industry leader in providing multi-channel customer interaction management, integrating e-mail, web, and voice. This project was part of the work that led Apropos from supporting call centers-where customers called in with problems-to supporting customers consistently across all the interaction media.

Purchasing project

This project was part of a larger report on business-to-business relationships across multiple industries commissioned by SAP. The goal is to understand and support the role of purchasing in large organizations, looking for opportunities to support this relationship on the Web. The team focused on understanding how purchasing does their job and how they manage their two primary relationships: with the internal groups needing items and with the external suppliers providing goods and services.


1. InContext Enterprises is a design firm offering a wide range of customer-centered design services. Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer, InContext's founders, have been key figures in moving the industry away from product-driven, and toward customer-driven, design solutions based on in-depth study of people's work and life practice. They brought the Contextual Design methodology, which draws on proven techniques from a number of fields, to business. Contextual Design techniques are used by companies and at universities all over the world.

2. Read the excerpt from Chapter 5 in PDF format.

This excerpt has been republished with the permission of Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, an imprint of Elsevier. Copyright (c) 2004. See


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