Methods for visualizing contextual inquiry & ethnography results

A huge collection of material can amass from what may seem like trivial or everyday activities of contextual inquiry and or ethnography studies. More often than not, these materials are usually textual, and as they amass leave a debris of stuff that is impossible to go via leave alone sort and make sense of.

It is therefore important to capture the material in visual formats or to visualize it to make it usable for designers as well as other parties interested in it. Visualizations can serve the purposes of sorting information, presenting patterns, giving a gist of the phenomena of study and essentially minimizing the amount of text to be read. Of course the latter may not apply if the visualization is textual or includes large textual elements.

With CI and ethnography results acting as boundary objects between designers and users, visualizing them enhances their ability to serve this purpose as users can sketch and reflect on what is being visualized about their contexts with ease.

Needless to say, CI and ethnography are intended for identifying existing work practices – PATTERNS – and visualizations are a great tool for this. However, the visualization(s) used in a study depend on the phenomenon of interest as well as the intention of the resulting data.

While using a formative rather than a normative approach to design work practices, visualizations can serve the purpose of providing a basis for formative co-design or participatory design minimizing time and effort taken to delve in current practices.

Below are some methods for visualizing CI results

1. Work flow, process flow

Work or process flow visualization are useful in depicting several elements in a given context including actors, artifacts, work or information paths, traffic flow and actor journeys. Such visualization can enable the identification of communication good practices or grid locks in a work or process flow.

Sample artifact map

2. Body maps

Body maps essentially map inventories of artifacts worn, carried, installed or implanted on a body of interest. Body maps can be used in revealing artifacts worn or pocketed by a worker and how they can best be designed or placed to enable effortless movement, dexterity and interaction with other artifacts and people while at work.

Example of a constructor’s body map artifacts can include safety helmet, dust mask, safety jacket + gloves, tool belt, toughened work pants and steel toe + hard soled shoes.

Sample body map

Body maps are of great interest now with the rise of wearable devices as well as smart fabrics. In application to healthcare and sports, they can help reveal suitable designs that can enable the detection of intended signals from the body as well as the presentation of these to the user.

3. Context cards

Context cards are used to capture the gist of a work or life context including actors in the context, what they are doing, how they are doing it and the environment around them. Context cards are usually image cards with short description text of the context in the image. They can help give an understanding of the user’s context as well as develop empathy for designing tools be used in that context.

Sample context card - in a meeting

A collection of context cards can be made into a collage, to depict regular or irregular patterns in a context.

See Haptimap context cards

4. Heat maps

Heat maps are useful in revealing patterns either repetitive or those that break from the norm. They can serve the purpose of revealing preferred or frequently used paths as well as rarely used ones. They are also useful in identifying patterns deviating from the norm.

5. Timelines

As used in Facebook, timeline visualizations enable the presentation of events as they occur over time. Such are perhaps popular in investigations in helping reveal the sequence of events that led to a mishap or intended scenarios. Information depicted on timelines can also be mapped onto artifact maps or process flow maps – putting it more in context – where events happened, when, etc.

Sample timeline visualization

6. Video and sound stills

Video clips can be used to capture and present complex work practices. They can be used to represent complex relationships, capture gesture and other subtle affordances that may otherwise be hard to capture through sketches, photos or text descriptions. For instance, they can capture user’s attention shifts or multitasking during a specific context.

Sound stills are audio recordings of a specific work context. They can be used to present underlying ambient sounds in the respective contexts. Essentially, they can enable a design team to determine what modalities of interaction would be suitable in specific contexts. For instance, in a mine, it may difficult for a worker to interact with a device through voice/speech.

7. Artifact maps

Artifact maps are models used to represent the overall layout of a workplace artifacts and thus enable a quick comprehension of a complex context as well guide research as well as design. The detail of the modelling can vary depending on the intent of the research or design work.

Sample artifact map

8. Artistic visualization of data

In a loose manner, artistic visualization of data may be taken as a presentation of information without strictly observing its scientific context but rather just visualizing it in a way that makes it approachable or simply to capture the attention of observers. There are of course no limits to what can be visualized artistically.

The capturing of attention (I would say) then creates the context for identifying patterns or figuring ways how they can be identified in a piece of art.

Visualization of human feeling

Signpost as a tool for data collection

9. H-Form

The H-Form uses a ‘H’ figure to chart good and bad aspects for a subject of interest and the collection of ideas for improving issues surrounding the subject.

Sample H-Form - design issues identification

Ref & further reading:

Collect and Map it all: The Artifact Map, a Tool for Complex Context Analysis. Steffi Beckhaus, Senana Lucia Brugger, Katharina Wolter

What is participatory learning and action (PLA): an introduction. Sarah Thomas

Dynamic user experiences context cards. Haptimap –

Art/design work as a tool for primary data collection in the field of health research. Freddie Yauner, Andy Tennant.

An exploration of human emotion, in six movements. Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar.

H-Form, Issue identification. Jisc infoNet


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