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A Design Fiction Using Contextual Inquiry


This is an academic project in which we were asked to conduct contextual inquiry in a specific domain and generate insights for designing a smart and connected city of Bloomington for tourism in 2050.

My role

Participate in contextual inquiry, ideation with teams, take footage and write script for video.



Alison Cheng

Emily Fath

Igor Kalennyy

Sanjana Mathur



3 weeks     

Electricity Generating Pavement

This is an academic project in which we were asked to conduct contextual inquiry in a specific domain and generate insights for designing a smart and connected city of Bloomington for tourism in 2050.


This is an academic project in which we were asked to conduct contextual inquiry in a specific domain and generate insights for designing a smart and connected city of Bloomington for tourism in 2050.

Contextual Inquiry

We each conducted contextual inquiry with people in city of Bloomington to understand the current work flow in four domains: transportation, place/space, energy and food. 

My contextual inquiry focused on the domain of place/ space, and the participant is a working staff from the gift store. I interviewed her at work for around an hour, with the purpose of understanding her daily work routine, how the customer service is implemented, what tools are involved, what skills are needed, and the challenges she might encounter at work.

Transit Center


Brewery Cardinal Spirit


Global Gift Store

place/ Space

Recycling Office


Layout and Workflow in Global Gift Store

The store is located in downtown area, and sell handmade gifts from all around the world. It is an NGO and one of its most important mission is to promote fair trade and cultural diversity. Door of the store is wide opened. Participant of this contextual inquiry is Kinsey, a junior major in retailing at Indiana University.

During contextual inquiry, most of her work happened in the checkout section in the store, which is the counter area. When there are no customer in the store, she will also take this time to walk out of the counter, and walk around the store to check up the displaying items. She would also occasionally go to the storage room for gift packaging material, or get more items if they run out.


In general, checkout is the most important component in customer service. The counter is where most of the customer service is provided.

Mental Model

To analyze data after contextual inquiry, 50 post-it notes are generated to capture key points. These data are then sorted and 6 models are built to understand the data. 

Checking out is an important procedure in global gifit store, as this is when the majority part of cutomser service is provided. Besides the standardized checkout process and etiquettes performed, working staff would provide more mercherdizing item information to customers in the checkout process, such as where it come from, how it was made, whether it matches with the rest of decorations at customer’s home, and how it could be maintained in good conditions. This extra information are invaluable to global gift store. This allows customers and working staff to communite under the notion that items displayed in store are not only objects for sell, but are more like artifacts that can be stored, appreciated and archived. 

Used Tools

Tools that the participant mainly use at work is the checkout computer, gift wrapping materials such as paper, ribbon, and bag. 


The participant needs to communicate customers from different places daily (ranging from 200 to 40 depending on the day). Using language that can be easily understood by people is one thing that is emphasized in their training workshop. What are used mostly by working staff at work are greeting language.


In daily work, staff needs to know/ have:

  • Functionality and cultural stories of each item

  • Ways to communicate with people from different background

  • Skills of crafting that are used gift packaging

  • Knowledge of how each item is cataloged in storage


Staff's goal is to provide service to customers. The service include tangible services who are visible through the language used in checkout process, gift packaging procedure, and intangible service such as knowledge sharing, and having delightful conversations with customers.

Value System

The gift store is an NGO with a mission of fair trade that sells items crafted from all around the world. Staff in the store integrates the value system in their customer service by introducing stories of each merchandizing item, and the use of country card. Country card is a promotional method that also serves as a way to encourage people to buy items from different culture.

Design Implication

The acceptance of diversity at community level can be achieved through using visible art work as a medium. 

There is design space in better ways of making the cultural stories/ values of a certain artifact more visible.

Affinity Diagraming in Group

Each group member generated 50 post-it notes from contextual inquiry, conduct, and gather together to put all the post-it notes to compare the data. We started to conduct affinity diagraming. We first sorted post-it notes based on our own categories. We then go though each the post-it notes.  They were then put into general group. Then, each team member took one of the large groups and split the groups further. See the affinity diagraming in details.

Design Insights


  • Staff accounts for influx on busy days/times

  • There are various methods for staff member communication

  • There is informal partnership between local business and students from IU

  • Should take advantage of local businesses to attract tourists



  • Business value local collaboration

  • Face-to-face interaction is important for collaboration



  • Local businesses’ quality of customer service plays an important role in providing support/help, making people feel welcoming or reassuring

  • There are different types of customer services: phone, app, and face-to-face

  • Success of the customers’ experience depends on how well the staff can help in educating them in the offerings and staff training


Five concepts are generated from the insights.

Treasure Hunt Map

A digital treasure hunt map, designed to allow visitors to find artifacts hidden in different parts of the city. By finding the artifacts, visitors have a chance to explore and visit places that are significant to the city and know about the value system behind.

Graffiti Wall

Bloomington is an artsy city full of graffiti wall. There could be a space for graffiti which invites both local artists and visitors to co-draw on the wall. Wall is made of special material and with time, the paint on the wall will gradually evaporate. This collaborative art space not only helps to establish the art identity of the city, but also it involves people to have fun by drawing and painting.

Crafting Instructions Vending Machine

This machine lets visitors to scan the gift they buy from the gift store. On the screen, it displays country of origin, how it was crafted, and materials needed to make the gift. Inside the vending machine, there are different bags containing materials for crafting. Visitors can buy a bag and take it home. This can lead to a crafting experience later, which goes side by side with the artifacts visitors bought in terms of creating a lasting and meaningful memory of the city experience.

Electricity Generating Bike

In Bloomington, going around will be easy, affordable and environmental-friendly after the adoption of electric bike. The bike is powered by electricity generated by people who pedal on it. There could be also a variety of power stations spread around the city, which allow visitors to borrow and return the bikes. The power stations also enable people to charge their devices for free.

Pervasive Tour Guide 

In each iconic building or public place, a smart sensor is built in the wall. Visitors can wave on it to activate the sensor and listen to the story of the architecture. 

More Concepts from Affinity Diagraming

  • Trash can with a sensor at the mouth. It marks your trash and later when it is turned into recycled furniture or something else you know how you’ve contributed to making it.

  • Recycle drones - Drones move around the city and pick trash up and recycle it properly. 

  • Donated items from the recycle center are put up on a website and when you use an app to make your shopping list it tells you what out of those you can get for free from the recycle center,

  • Recycle waste to make furniture and public benches.

  • B-town concierge - Helps you with stay, transportation and food places in an area or for your overall trip.


Contextual inquiry is a research method that is defined as "Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured interview method to obtain information about the context of use, where users are first asked a set of standard questions and then observed and questioned while they work in their own environments". Conducting contextual inquiry allows me to reflect on how it should be executed, when it can be used and its strengths and weaknesses. Here are some of the reflections after the contextual inquiry. 

  • My contextual inquiry is conducted in global gift store. After generating post-it notes, it seems many of them are things I already know. I realized perhaps the best situation of using contextual inquiry, which is to understand certain thing in work context, is in an unfamiliar context. If as a customer, you have already developed a certain level of understanding on work practice, then conducting a contextual inquiry is probably not the best design research method.   


  • In contextual inquiry, participant needs to actively take the role of explaining, instead of waiting to be asked. However, in store, talking to someone while performing the work such checking out the customer is not appropriate. One strategy I noticed after I told my participant my purpose is, she would take the opportunity of talk to customer and explain what are used in her work. For example, she explained what country card in detail to a customer, whereas the other staff did not do that. This might be a strategy to conduct contextual inquiry without interrupting the work flow. 

  • After generating data from contextual inquiry, I struggled a bit with sorting and analyzing data. It's good that the amount of data is within the manageable scale. However, I take some time to research on ways of showing the data in a visualised and more straightforward way and find out using chart, figure can be good methods.

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