Context Methods: Study Guide

Context methods (such as field and diary studies) provide insights about a users’ real-life environment and behaviors and shed light on how products are used in a natural context. 

Here’s a list of NN/g’s most useful introductory articles and videos about context methods (field studies and diary studies), as well as some related topics. Within each section, the resources are in recommended reading order.

Context Methods: An Overview

Many UX-research methods involve asking users to pretend they’re in a realistic but hypothetical situation. For example, in a usability test, participants may be given the task to buy a new car. While we hope that users will behave as if they really were making this purchase, there might some important contextual details we’d miss out on with this method. 

Field and diary studies use a very different approach. They involve observing users’ behaviors in their real-life context. Participants are not asked to do anything special, except perhaps answer a few questions. 

In a diary study, participants document their experiences (thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) over a set period of time (a few days, a few weeks, or longer).

field study is conducted in the user’s environment (e.g., home or office). Researchers follow each participant around and observe the participant’s normal daily behaviors and activities.

Returning to the car-buying example, a field study may involve observing participants in their homes while they research models of cars and dealerships. A diary study may have each participant log car-shopping activities such as visiting a dealership or discussing options with a partner.  

Field and diary studies are particularly useful during the discovery phase of a design project, when we’re trying to build up our understanding of our users and opportunities to improve their experiences. They’re also commonly used to help develop customer-journey maps.

For more information on both methods, consider our week-long series on Qualitative Research.

Diary Studies

Field Studies & Contextual Inquiry

The terms “field study” and “contextual inquiry” are often used interchangeably. Typically, a contextual inquiry involves more interviewing and conversation with the participant.


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