Contextual Design

December 1, 2007

The in-house “Chief Work Practices Architect” of a client is using Contextual Design to understand project team work practices. The Contextual Design Methodology was developed by Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer as an outgrowth of their work in Contextual Inquiry, which originated at Digital Equipment. This is where I first learned about contextual inquiry, from Karen, many years ago.

Fundamentally, contextual inquiry (CI)is the method of watching people while they work and asking questions about why they perform particular tasks in a particular way. The dialogue elicits insights into the affordances and flaws of user interfaces and opportunities for improvement.

While at Digital and subsequently in my consulting practice, I have integrated the concepts of CI into my own practice of “contextual interviewing.” I always approach interviews by seeking first to understand the context, the work, and how people interact with the artifacts of knowledge around them and with others in seeking to share and transfer knowledge. I also shifted my perspective from thinking and talking about “knowledge processes” to “work practices” as the latter term, to me, gets at closer representation of quotidian tasks in which we use and create knowledge.

My work in contextual inquiry prepared me well for working with Cognitive Edge methods; it is perhaps also why, when I first heard Dave Snowden speak about the his ethnographic studies it resonated so clearly for me. Consider that sitting with people while they work is in fact the way to elicit that elusive “stuff I only know at the moment I need to know it.” There are many other similarities — voluminous collection of data (sense-making) items for categorization and tagging, custom software to support the tagging and retrieval processes for design, the emergence of the intelligence of the group during the categorization and consolidation processes.

Karen and Hugh, in their company InContext, using these contextual methods as the data to go on with the “delivery end” of their work, which is customer-centered product design.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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