Contextual Inquiry for Nonprofit Organization Management

SI501 - Contextual Inquiry and Consulting Foundations
2017. 9 - 2017. 12
The project is the final outcome for the course SI501 in School of Information, University of Michigan. To practice qualitative research method contextual inquiry, I participated in a qualitative design consulting project for a real world client: a local community organization located in northern Detroit. Our primary objective was to optimize their on/offline membership payment process to have less human errors and efficient for their organization goal: provide beneficial services.
Methods & Toolkit
Contextual Inquiry, Interview


The main concern of the organization is pertaining to their troublesome, error-prone membership coordinating process. The organization has been struggling to merge two different stream for membership registration and other modifications; Online forms and paper-based forms that manually entered into a computer-based database. The organization requested the enhancement of database system integration and automation for reducing human errors and improving efficiency. On a closer view, the problem was further connected to their institutional memory since the organization also reported that they are currently having difficulty to utilize the data of volunteer participation and facility rental scheduling.

Community house
Kick-Off Meeting with the Board


After the kick-off meeting, all team members conducted individual background research to have a better sense about our client and the relevant area. I approached from a scholarly perspective to investigate 1) What are the issues of local nonprofit organizations in terms of managing their membership? 2) What are the existing methods to address the issues? 3) Is there any HCI approach for the issues and how effective would it be?. With others’ analysis of problem, target population, and sector, we could have comprehensive amount of knowledge about the problem.


Overall, we conducted four semi-structured interviews with the organization’s board and staff members, and three informal interviews with resident members. One of the most important points in the interviews was to get the closest sense of their experiences in working context. Therefore, when we prepared the interview protocol, we focused on setting the questions that ask a particular experience they had in detail: what they went through and what they experienced and why. We tried to set the interview location as close to their workspace as possible. After each interview, the team had an interpretation session to revisit the interview, have a mutual understanding among the team, and find insights/questions.

There was a guideline for role distribution: one interviewer (leading the interview) and one note-taker (taking notes/recording and cannot ask). I participated as a interviewer for resident members interview and a note-taker for two organizational employees. Especially for the interview of resident members, our goal was to have the residents’ perception of the organization and the neighborhood in general context. I could hear remarks that were valuable to support our findings from the board members and staff interviews regarding the neighborhood identity and the engagement of residents in the organization activities. However, the hallway approach had some limitations: 1) The random interviewees we contacted had no issues with their membership payment or participating in the organization, therefore, we could not hear about the context of the membership workflow or communication breakdowns. 2) We could only approach to only certain elderly population in that certain time of the day.

Affinity Wall

To organize our findings, we created a physical affinity wall which is a useful tool for data organization. For affinity wall, we printed all the meaningful/possibly meaningful interview findings and quotes and grouped 3-7 similar notes under a mother note and name it with a meaningful sentence that can overarch the rest of the notes. After we grouped all the notes, we had to iterate the grouping process twice more until there are only four bigger categories that can umbrella others: Communication, Finance, Board Functionality, and Community. The process made us clear about the problem and observed findings from the interview so that we can have the ground for our solution brainstorming.

Completed Affinity Wall


Based on the affinity wall, we are now working on ideating solutions and prioritizing them.

Ideation for Solutions