Thursday, September 01, 2005

Reading :: Rapid Contextual Design

Originally posted: Thu, 01 Sep 2005 09:36:57

Rapid Contextual Design: A How-to Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design by Karen Holtzblatt, Jessamyn Burns Wendell, Shelley Wood

Somehow it's appropriate to read this book after Aristotle. Like Aristotle's Rhetoric, Rapid Contextual Design has a few striking ideas and a lot of exhaustive advice about the details. It is indeed "a how-to guide to key techniques." And they're generally quite useful.

In fact, what I've always liked about contextual design is that it's sort of ethnography light: easy to grasp, rapidly deployable. It's not as rigorous as good ethnographic research, but it doesn't require a PhD either. I've found it to be a good way to introduce students to the concepts of fieldwork, although I'm careful to stress that one CD course does not make them qualified anthropologists. What I inevitably find, though, is that students have trouble with the details: how to conduct an unstructured interview, how to run an affinity session, how to walk the wall and do visioning. That's where this book really shines: it's full of advice about things as diverse as inductive coding, arranging for site visits, tactfully getting interviewees back on track, and constructing paper prototypes. Much of the advice is just as applicable to other types of field research, and I'm certainly going to be passing it along to my students this fall.

Contextual design itself continues to evolve in its techniques and rationale. Look carefully and you'll find some subtle adjustments to how the authors portray the methodology and how they justify its parts. They've also added some common HCI techniques: profiling and scenarios, for instance.

I don't see this book making it into heavy rotation on my shelf, but I imagine I will look at it whenever I teach this class or use CD on my own. >

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