Contextual Design

Designing user-centered ICT systems

History and Orientation

Since 1998 product teams, marketers, user interface designers, and usability professionals have designed products using Contextual Design. This new approach is the state of the art to designing directly from an understanding of how the customer works. Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer, the developers of Contextual Design have coached teams in using this process to produce new designs. Contextual Design started with the invention of Contextual Inquiry. Holtzblatt started working with teams and noticed that they didn’t know how to go from the data to the design and they didn’t know how to structure the system to think about it.

Core Assumptions and Statements

Contextual design is an approach to designing user-centered ICT systems, with forms on being integrated in existing work contexts and practices. Contextual Design approaches product design directly from an understanding of how customers work. The question is what matters to the people that they would buy a product that we make. Great product ideas come from the combination of the detailed understanding of a customer need with the in-depth understanding of technology. The best product designs happen when the product's designers are involved in collecting and interpreting customer data so they appreciate what real people need. Contextual Design gives designers the tools to do just that. Contextual Design starts with the recognition that any system embodies a way of working. A system's function and structure forces particular strategies, language, and work flow on its users. Successful systems offer a way of working that customers want to adopt. Contextual Design is a method which helps a cross-functional team come to agreement on what their customers need and how to design a system for them.

Contextual Design has seven parts:


Contextual Inquiry: uncovers who customers really are and how they work on a day-to-day basis to understand the customers: their needs, their desires and their approach to the work.


Work Modeling: capture the work of individuals and organizations in diagrams to provide different perspectives on how work is done.


Consolidation: brings data from individual customer interviews together so the team can see common pattern and structure without losing individual variation.


Work redesign: uses the consolidated data to drive conversations about how to improve work by using technology to support the new work practice.


The User Environment Design: captures the floor plan of the new system. It shows each part of the system, how it supports the user's work, exactly what function is available in that part, and how the user gets to and from other parts of the system.


Test with customers: Paper prototyping develops rough mockups of the system using Post-its to represent windows, dialog boxes, buttons, and menus.


Putting it into practice: Prioritization helps the transition to implementation by planning your system implementation over time. Object-oriented design helps you move from systems design to design of the implementation

Conceptual Model

No uniform conceptual model exists. The different stages make use of a format which can help the teams with their performance.

Favorite Methods

The Contextual Design uses a variety of methods, depending on the information needed, but prefers all kinds of interviews. In the first stage interviews (structured, unstructured and semi-structured) are conducted. Other techniques such as focus groups and observation can also be used.

Scope and Application

This technique handles the collection and interpretation of data from fieldwork with the intention of building a software-based product. With a structured approach a design can be made which the customer prefers.


To be added.


Key publications

Beyer, H. & Holtzblatt, K. (1998). Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems. Academic Press: Kaufmann Publishers.

Preece, J., Rogers, Y., Sharp, H. (2002). Interaction Design. Beyond human-computer interaction. New York: John Wiley Publishers

K. Holtzblatt and H. Beyer, "Contextual Design: Principles and Practice," Field Methods for Software and Systems Design. D. Wixon and J. Ramey (Eds.), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., NY, NY, (forthcoming).

K. Holtzblatt, "If We're a Team, Why Don't We Act Like One?", in interactions, July 1994, Vol. 1 No. 3, p. 17

M. Kyng, "Making Representations Work," in Representations of Work, HICSS Monograph (Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences), January 1994. Lucy Suchman, Editor.

P. Sachs, "Transforming Work: The Role of Learning in Organizational Change," in Representations of Work, HICSS Monograph (Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences), January 1994. Lucy Suchman, Editor.

K. Holtzblatt and J. Beringer, "xApps—A New Practice for Next Practice" in in SAP Design Guild, November, 2003.

Jeffery Veen, "Stalk Your User,", 2001.

D. Wixon and J. Ramey (Eds.), Field Methods for Software and Systems Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., NY, NY, 1996.

H. Beyer and K. Holtzblatt, "Apprenticing with the Customer: A Collaborative Approach to Requirements Definition ," Communications of the ACM, May 1995.

H. Beyer, "Calling Down the Lightning," in IEEE Software. September 1994, Vol 11 No 5, p. 106.

K. Holtzblatt, "If We're a Team, Why Don't We Act Like One?," interactions, July 1994, Vol. 1 No. 3, p. 17.

K. Holtzblatt and H. Beyer, "Making Customer-Centered Design Work for Teams ," Communications of the ACM, October 1993.

See also Communication and Information Technology