Contextual design is a human-centered methodology for designing information systems from a rich understanding of customer work practice (Beyer & Holtzblatt, 1998). This article explores the application of contextual design to online learning systems development. Beginning with definitions of Instructional Systems Design (ISD) and contextual design, this chapter then offers a detailed description of the latter, and concludes by considering its relevance to the design of online learning technologies. To avoid confusion, it is important to understand the differing backgrounds of ISD and contextual design. ISD models are process models for the development of instruction or instructional systems (ASTD, 1988; Dick & Carey, 1996; Kemp, Morrison & Ross, 1998). In this context, “systems” refer to the interrelatedness of all parts of an instructional program and the attempt of the development process to account for the many parts and their interdependencies. Contextual design grew out of very different soil—a soil in which “systems” means “information systems;” that is, computers, software and related technologies. As a computer system design method, contextual design focuses on how best to design systems—hardware and software—to meet customers’ needs. While these needs may include learning or training, the concern is less with learning how to do something than with actually doing it— quickly, cheaply, effectively. With instructional design, content is nearly always critical. With contextual design, as will be seen, work practice is critical.
Contextual design is a human-centered design methodology created by Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer to address the needs of commercial software and information system development (Beyer & Holtzblatt, 1998). The methodology emphasizes the need to base design decisions on a shared understanding of how real people do real work in real contexts. It has been applied to such varied design problems as enterprise portals, system administration tools, instructional software and library systems (Holtzblatt, 2001; Rockwell, 1999; Curtis, Heiserman, Jobusch, Notess & Webb, 1999; Normore, 1999; Notess, 2001, 2004).
Because contextual design is described in great detail in Beyer and Holtzblatt (1998), this chapter provides a brief overview of the process. Contextual design consists of six steps.
User Environment Design
Each step below provides examples illustrating the relevance of contextual design to online instructional settings.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Paper Prototyping: The diagram expressing the user environment design is used to create paper prototypes, which are then put before users during paper prototype interviews to validate the design of the new system. The sixth step in contextual design.
Consolidation: Work models developed from individual observations are combined to identify both commonalities and uniquenesses. The third step in contextual design.
Work Redesign: The consolidated models and insights gained are used to generate ideas for improving work practice. The redesigned work practice is expressed in storyboards. The fourth step in contextual design.
Contextual Inquiry: A field research method for observing real work practice in its natural environment and then co-interpreting the data with the person observed. The first step in contextual design.
User Environment Design: The system’s functions and structures are defined in a way that supports the new work practice as envisioned in the redesign and specified in the storyboards. The system is represented in a diagram. The fifth step in contextual design.
Contextual Design: A human-centered methodology for designing information systems from a rich understanding of customer work practice.
Work Modeling: Data gathered by contextual inquiry is used to create diagrammatic representations of the work practice. Work models include sequence models, flow models, cultural models, physical models and artifact models. The second step in contextual design.
Work Breakdown: A problem in the work practice.
Work Practice: The way in which people accomplish their intentional activities, including their motivations, pressures, habits, sequences, collaborations, artifacts, environments, and so forth.