3 money-saving lessons contextual inquiries taught us

3 money-saving lessons contextual inquiries taught us

Natalia Figas
August 07, 2020  | 3 min read

Dear Manager! Your company can benefit a lot from contextual inquiries and other research & design methods. How? The example leads our client who cut down the time spend on one customer case from 30 to 3 minutes and skyrocketed the efficiency in the Support Department. Let's talk about the power of research.

What is the contextual inquiry?

In simple words, the contextual inquiry is the method of interviewing users and observing them in their workspace.

This approach removes almost every obstacle to obtain a piece of real information and is great to draw correct conclusions about the user's habits and needs.

The contextual inquiry has its roots in User-Centered Design (UCD) and - as it turned out later - was the best for our client because it revealed the real needs of the employees.

Now, as we said earlier - your company, your project, your employees can benefit a lot from contextual inquiries. How? Here's the story of one of our clients.

The context

Back in 2013, we started a technological partnership with Hi! Tech Mobility (previously Sesam Parkering), a well-known ticketless parking solution brand from Norway. 

Few years later, in 2017, we designed CSM (Customer Support Module) in Support Department. One of the goals of our client was to speed up the work of office workers and parking wardens.

The initial time spent on one customer case was 30 minutes, which gave the maximum of 16 customer cases per one workday per one employee. But we managed to design and develop a CSM handling one case in just... 3 minutes.

Where to start?

This would not be possible without research and design phases. Due to gain insights from system users and develop new support system features we conducted many activities, eg. user tests, prototyping or contextual inquiries.

Let's take a closer look into three most interesting learnings we took from our journey.

#1: Contextual observations build trust and allow to prevent money leaks

contextual inquiries - prevent money leaks

The first lesson was really surprising. The research phase started via Skype interviews. To this stage we invited 4 persons working in the office. 

One of the biggest issues was that employees had to jump between three data sources and multiple tabs to obtain pieces of information about the parking event reported by the customer.

As we measured, dealing with one support case took 30 minutes. So we spotted the first chance to save the company's money and design one comfortable interface for the Support.

The concrete outcomes of this phase were topics to discuss which ended as user stories. User stories define the functionalities of the designed system. They describe the problem, solution, and justification for such a solution.

In a very special way, employees opened up in front of us telling us about all their daily duties, challenges, and frustrations. We built trust which helped us spot the biggest issue and lots of smaller.

#2: You may hear the difference too

contextual inquiries - language issues

Initial interviews gave us more or less the idea of the language that Support workers use. Suddenly we understood what is happening. There were boundaries between office jargon, parking jargon and system vocabulary making certain actions more fatiguing.

This discovery sheds light on the naming aspect. To avoid future miscommunication we had to unify the names of system elements.

Additionally, we had to rethought how to show the home page element. It turned out that our interlocutors weren't familiar with the home icon and did not identify it as coming back to the starting page.

Understanding the language and conception differences, we were able to design the system easy to use. Thanks to this, the pace of moving around the system sped up which had and impact of shortening the time to solve parking client's case.

#3 Contextual inquiries reveal the secret context

contextual inquiries - observations

Do you remember the initial interviews? We conducted interviews via Skype...but we didn't see our interlocutors. So we went to Norway to meet them in person and we revealed their little secrets. These discoveries impacted the most on the new design of the system.

In the Support Department work women 50+ years old. They wear glasses and are not technical persons. What is more, they flip their monitors 90° to see more results on the screen.

Now we understood well how much effort it took to operate with the old system. Hundreds of open tabs, three different data sources, flipped monitors, way too much technical stuff and wordings.

There was one additional issueWe discovered that employees experienced physical fatigue due to the black-white interface of the system they worked with. As you may expect, this seriously impacted the speed of work and department efficiency, which also influences the relations with clients...

... so these were the reasons our client was losing money.

Outcomes of the contextual inquiry for our client

Thanks to the contextual inquiries we had the opportunities to watch, talk with, and listen to the system users. Our research and design activities took about 3 months but the outcomes were priceless.

Let's list just some of them:

  • KPI improved: operational time per customer case reduced from 30 minutes to 3 minutes
  • Thanks to redesign of the interface of support module and improvements in processing database queries, one support employee can now solve 120 user cases daily instead of 12
  • Technology adaptation: design of the new support system interface adapted to non-tech, elder users
  • No more headaches: new colors of the interface resulted in a better frame of mind of employees
  • More comfort: three data sources were displayed in one interface
  • Style guide for the new system created: and still valid from 2016

The summary

contextual inquiries - summary

Each company is unique. Each one works in a different environment, with different clients, has different needs and differently formulated priorities. And the context of the work seems to be the determining factor for the project.

Our partner was aware of what exactly he was striving for and allowed us to act in a non-standard way. Observing his employees in the context of their everyday life was a bull's eye and brought an excellent return on investment.

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