Using contextual inquiry to learn about your audiences
This article discusses how technical communicators can use Contextual Inquiry (a field research method) to gather information about their audiences and their specific needs for online and hardcopy documentation. Inquiry is based on three principles: 1. Data gathering must take place in the context of the users' work. 2. The data-gatherer and the user form a partnership to explore issues together. 3. The inquiry is based on a focus; that is, the inquiry is based on a clearly defined set of concerns, rather than on a list of specific questions (as in a survey). This article includes a description of Contextual Inquiry as we have used it at Digital Equipment Corporation and examples from our experiences as technical communicators and usability engineers on various projects that have used this method.