Contextual inquiry is a structured field interviewing usability evaluation method. It involves conversation as well as observation. Contextual inquiries requires a high degree of skill from the usability specialist, in order to ask appropriate questions without interrupting the participants' work flow or influencing their responses. Sometimes two usability specialists are used for a contextual inquiry project, one to conduct the interview, and one to observe and record participant behavior. You can discover unmet needs and understand existing behaviors in greater depth with this method.
a structured technique for gathering field data through interviewing (in a participatory design sense) and collecting information about the environment (the context).
A research method for understanding the target users of a product. When conducting CI, researchers visit users in their actual work setting and gather data about how users really work with the goal of building better tools for them. The key ideas of Contextual Inquiry include Context, the natural work setting of users; Partnership, the establishment of rapport with users; and Focus, the appropriate focal point of researchers' attention when observing the users' experiences. Be sure to visit inContext for more information.