Contextual Inquiry for NOAA-funded SeaGrant

Naomi Herman-Aplet, Wei-Tzu Huang, Andrew Katz, and Gierad Laput

This is a Contextual Inquiry project for Michigan SeaGrant, a non-profit inter-university research organization focusing on the coastal resources within the Great Lakes.


Michigan SeaGrant approached our group to seek guidance on identifying the potential ways to improve the information and communication flow within their organization. They expressed challenges on the internal workflow processes within their group. They were also seeking for guidance on effective ways of using technology to help them accomplish tasks and become more efficient with their roles.

Our task in this project was to use the methods of Contextual Inquiry to gather data in the context of Michigan SeaGrant's work practices, use the data to build models describing key aspects of their organization, identify breakdowns that impede them from their work, and ultimately provide recommendations based on our findings. For this project, we specifically focused on the information flow within their Communications Team, as well as potential technology tools to help them manage projects and accomplish tasks faster and better.

Conducting Interviews and Building Models

We interviewed five individuals who we felt were representative of Michigan SeaGrant's diverse organization. We used the interviews as opportunities to probe and gather data in the context of each individual's work. We then interpreted these interviews, built individual models, and recorded affinity notes. The specific models that were generated from these interviews include:

Writing affinity notes and generating models based from interview data
Workflow models
Artifact (left) and Sequence (right) models
More workflow models
An example of a cultural model
Another cultural model

Model Consolidation

Once the models were generated, our next task was to consolidate each of them into a single model that captured a shared view on particular aspects of the organization. We decided to start with the cultural model because it was the most prominent aspect of our observed data, and it shed light into other areas of Michigan SeaGrant's practices. A diagram of the consolidated Cultural model is shown below.

The consolidated Cultural Model
A closer look at the model

Consolidating the Workflow model

Phase I of consolidating the workflow model: Listing and grouping roles
Drafting the consolidated workflow model

Affinity Wall

The next step of the process was to systematically analyze our findings through building an Affinity Wall. Our wall was constructed with about 500 well-defined affinity notes.

Design Ideas and Recommendations

From the Affinity Wall, we were able to glean breakdowns and design ideas in the context of Michigan SeaGrant's work environment. These insights ultimately served as the backbone for our recommendations. Our design ideas covered the following (I am purposely being generic with these findings and design ideas to maintain NDA with Michigan SeaGrant).

Our Final Recommendation Paper. Download unavailable due to NDA.


Michigan Sea Grant plays a critical role to fund researchers studying important Great Lakes coastal issues, and plays an essential role in communicating technical research results in general language to deliver information to the public. The whole organization is dedicated to this work and commit themselves to their stakeholders. Thus, we felt a very strong desire to help forward their mission. Through the process of Contextual Inquiry, we were able to identify key information flow breakdowns in the context of their work. We were able to generate design ideas and recommendations, allowing them to fully leverage their resources, streamline internal communication, and execute their processes more effectively.