UX Research: In-Lab vs Contextual Interviews

Contextual-InterviewWhen in-lab, it is easy to forget the numerous variables that come into play when you are in a respondent’s home. For instance, a noisy dog or a freezing cold living room.

In-lab, you control the environment.  You are familiar with the technology.  You know where the bathroom is.  You can adjust the thermostat.

Sounds great, right?  That’s because it is, for the researcher. However, it may not always be the best scenario for the respondent.

Respondents, while physically comfortable and well hydrated (can I get you a water?), are not familiar with the interview room.  They are unaccustomed to the building and where to park. They may have gotten lost or stuck in traffic.  All of these factors can cause stress and ultimately impact how the respondent participates in the study.

How can this be avoided?  By removing as many variables as possible for the respondent and conduct contextual interviews.  Meet with the respondent on their home turf.  Whether it’s in their home or office, the more comfortable a respondent feels, the more likely they are to give you the most honest feedback.  This also allows the researcher and strategist to observe the respondent’s surroundings and pull insightful data from what they see.  In lab, a respondent can convincingly tell you they are “going paperless”.  Yet that same question asked in the respondent’s home reveals a table covered in bills and printed receipts.

Did the respondent lie?  No, not necessarily.  Chances are what they told you, at least in their eyes, is the truth.  Perhaps this is their version of “going paperless”.  A skilled and tactful researcher would follow up on their initial question by probing on the subject of the papers covering the table without contradicting the respondent.  Perhaps the respondent did not fully understand the term, or that they are actually in the ongoing process of “going paperless”.  Either way, the research team would not have gained this insight if they were not sitting in the respondent’s home. These details may seem small but they are fundamental when developing personas and uncovering the deeper layers of why users have certain behaviors.

In-lab testing is tried and true in the UX industry.  It is effective and produces actionable, useful data.  But when possible, and appropriate for the study, contextual interviews can garner precious insights into a respondent’s thought process that may have been missed otherwise.

To learn more about our processes and uses of contextual interviews contact us at 770-391-1099 or email