Contextual Inquiry: Using Ethnographic Research to Impact your Library UX

Wednesday, 9/19/2018 - Wednesday, 10/24/2018
  • 2:00 PM (Eastern)
  • 1:00 PM (Central)
  • 12:00 PM (Mountain)
  • 11:00 AM (Pacific)
An interview graphic, by Makarenko Andrey

Contextual Inquiry is an ethnographic research method that involves in-depth, participant-led sessions where users take on the role of educator, teaching the researcher by walking them through tasks in the physical environment in which they typically perform them. It can be used to better understand the intents and motivations behind user behavior and works well as an accompaniment to quantitative data, illuminating the “why” behind the “what.”

In this web course, learn what’s needed to conduct a Contextual Inquiry and how to analyze the ethnographic data once collected. We’ll talk about getting stakeholders on board, the process and scalability for different sized library teams. We’ll cover how to synthesize, visualize, and communicate your findings through sequence models and affinity diagrams. Finally, learn how this process can help guide your space or online design and content strategy efforts while constructing a rich picture of the user experience.

This is a blended format web course:

The course will be delivered as 6 separate live webinar lectures, one per week on Wednesday September 19 and then repeating Wednesdays, September 26, October 3, 10, 17 and 24 at 1:00 pm Central time. You do not have to attend the live lectures in order to participate. The webinars will be recorded and distributed through the web course platform for asynchronous participation. The web course space will also contain the exercises and discussions for the course.


At the end of this course, participants will:

  • Understand the basic tenets of ethnographic research & when these methodologies are appropriate
  • Have strategies for engaging library staff and stakeholders
  • Know how to plan for a contextual inquiry, including:
    • Assembling a team
    • Determining size and scope
    • Recruiting
    • Conducting interviews
    • Conducting debrief sessions
    • Synthesizing data
  • Understand how to process and use the collected data in meaningful ways
  • Have strategies for advocating for change based on research findings
  • Feel confident in their ability to scale and conduct a contextual inquiry at their own library

Who Should Attend

This workshop would be for anyone, in any type of library, who has an interest in better understanding their library users, and wants to improve the library user experience. It’s not limited to the web space, as you could use your research to improve physical spaces, too. It all depends on the focus of the research project. However, the focus for this course will be on doing the contextual inquiry to improve library web environments. We’ll also briefly mention IRB, though that applies more to academic libraries. As for prerequisites, it would be helpful for users to have a basic understanding of the concepts of UX and usability prior to the class, as well as some questions they feel could be answered by qualitative research methods, but it’s certainly not mandatory. 


Rachel Vacek

Rachel Vacek headshot

Rachel Vacek is the Head of Design & Discovery at the University of Michigan Library. Her department does front-end web development, design, content strategy, user research, project management, and offers accessibility expertise and UX strategy across the entire Library web presence. She’s previously worked in libraries at the University of Houston, Vanderbilt University, and Miami University.

Rachel’s experience with contextual inquiries includes co-leading a CI as part of a website redesign at Houston, partnering with EBSCO on a faculty CI at Michigan, and teaching this web course in 2017 with Deirdre Costello.

Rachel regularly teaches workshops and gives presentations at local and national library conferences on UX, service design, and library web technologies. She was also a 2007 ALA Emerging Leader, a 2014 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, and LITA President for 2014-2015. Learn more about her presentations, publications, and more at You can also follow her on twitter at @vacekrae.

Donna Lanclos

Donna Lanclos headshot
Donna Lanclos is an anthropologist who has been working in libraries and higher education since 2009, as a researcher dedicated to providing insight into the behaviors and motivations of the people who work and study in universities and colleges.  Between 2009 and 2017 she was the Library Anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Starting in 2018 she has been working as an independent researcher and consultant, conducting research, delivering talks and workshops, and writing.  She has conducted and directed projects in the US, UK, and Ireland, and writes about her work at, in addition to publishing in journals and edited volumes.

Donna has conducted two Contextual Inquiries to date, focusing on academic users. One project focused on on research practices, with EBSCO in collaboration with Deirdre Costello, and one project focused on teaching practices, with Jisc, in collaboration with Lawrie Phipps.

Donna’s most recent publications can also be found listed on her website:



  • LITA Member: $135
  • ALA Member: $195
  • Non-member: $260

Moodle and Webinar login info will be sent to registrants the week prior to the start date.

How to Register

Register here, courses are listed by date and you need to log in.


Contact ALA Registration:  call 1-800-545-2433 and press 5 or email or submit a print registration form [PDF]

Tech Requirements

The course will be delivered via the Moodle courseware system.  Participants will need an internet connection and computer with a current operating system and web browser. Further details will be provided prior to the course start.  The course will proceed weekly for 6 weeks with an optional two weeks if students need more time to complete assignments.

The live, synchronous lectures will require attendee participation via internet audio. Attendees will need a wired, high-speed internet connection, and a headset or speakers.  It is recommended that attendees use headsets connected to their computers (VOIP) during an Adobe Connect session. All attendees are muted and should use the built in chat function to communicate with presenters.  The use of computer speakers with a mic is not recommended, as it may cause echo. The recommended browser is Firefox although other browsers should work well for attending.

Alternately the webinar recordings can be viewed after the live lecture using a standard web browser, internet connection, and audio out capability to speakers or head phones.


For questions about registration, contact ALA Registration:  call 1-800-545-2433 and press 5 or email

For all other questions or comments related to the course, contact LITA at (312) 280-4268 or Mark Beatty at