two people sitting on a bench, the sun is setting

Contextual interviews: understanding employees in their work context

September 10, 2020

This case study shows how contextual interviews together with other research methods helped to understand people’s work environment, experiences, and pain points of delivery folks of gas cylinders. The study highlights the value of the triangulation of research methods.

Background and problem statement

India is the second-biggest consumer of domestic Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG), which is used for heating, cooking and vehicles. The distribution through pipelines is very rare – the main distribution channel for this is LPG cylinders that are stocked in the distribution centers throughout the country and distributed by delivery personnel.

Demand is high, and so is the workload on LPG delivery folks. About 30-130 cylinders are delivered daily by one single delivery person. Their work involves heavy lifting and carrying, repetitive tasks and overuse of the same muscles again and again.

Due to this manual handling of heavy cylinders there are chances of injuries, bad postures, and eventually high risk of musculoskeletal disorders.

The goal of this project was to understand human factors and ergonomics in a context of LPG delivery folks to make their work safer and more productive.

a man taking a cylinder from a truck
This man takes a cylinder from the back of a truck.

Why contextual interviews?

I wanted to learn how the work schedule of these workers looks like, how their workplace is, about their behavior during work, and what other elements connected to their ecosystem are. Contextual interviews are an efficient tool for getting answers to all these questions, help to connect with your persons of interest and their context and undisclosed challenges, and opportunity areas to consider for ideation.

These interviews were backed up by other methods to learn more about ergonomics, such as body mapping, Rapid Entire Body Assessments (REBA), time and motion studies.

The actual workers are the masters of the context you are analyzing since they work there every day. They know all the ups and downs of the job and if someone is working to make things easier for them, they try to help as much as they can. So we should never miss an opportunity to go out and understand them in the real situation. Also, as people have many things to share, they really appreciate someone to listen to them. If you are visiting their workplace to understand their work environment and different tasks they perform throughout the day, they highly value the interest.

Research process

After the desk research, I visited 7 different LPG distribution centers in my city and interviewed 30 delivery folks. It helped to observe and understand interesting insights that would not be possible in regular interviews. A short questionnaire was used to lead the conversation, consisting of a few questions related to their work role, work habits, and the discomfort they feel in different body parts.

Since this project was related to the ergonomics of the employees, I also carried a printed body map along with me. During the interview, this body map was helpful as workers could directly indicate the areas where they feel discomfort and I could observe the cause of this discomfort when they were working in situ. Before starting interviews I also filled a checklist which was prepared to check the workstation safety.

map of the body visualizing how bad pain is on a scale from 1-7
This map of the body helped to find out how bad pain is in certain areas of the body. The scale is from 1-7, 1 being low and 7 being high.

Research findings

During the contextual interviews, I observed a few things:

  • Half of the delivery folks don’t just deliver the cylinders, they also have to drive a delivery vehicle.
  • For a few distribution centers, delivery folks were working in a confined space with uneven ground, which added into the difficulty of carrying the cylinders.
  • Delivery folks had to carry cylinders up and down staircases where there was no elevator.
  • Almost all of them were habitual to the pain or were turning a blind eye towards the discomfort.
  • They carried cylinders in different postures as per their level of comfort.

During interviews I experienced that the delivery folks were telling only one side of the coin, I was able to understand the other side through observation. For example, their explanations of how they would carry a cylinder were pretty much the description of an ideal posture, however, this did not fit their actual behavior. Also, they didn't tell me in the interview that they also need to drive a delivery vehicle (this I couldn't find in the desk research too). I understood this when I spent some time observing their work schedule. This was one of the important areas of their work which I needed to consider while designing a solution for them.


A delivery guy carrying two heavy cylinders with LPG.
The delivery folks have to carry heavy loads on their shoulders.
two men carrying and stacking cylinders
Different postures of carrying cylinders


Hence, it turned out that these workers are suffering more from their work conditions than they’ve been aware of. Heavy lifting and carrying of cylinders are causing bad postures, discomfort in different body parts and eventually can lead to musculoskeletal disorders in delivery folks. These people are turning a blind eye towards their discomfort as there is not sufficient equipment for them (maybe due to low budget, less importance as manpower is adequate) which can make their work safer and easy. There are lots of opportunities to improve their work station and their way of working.

Results and implementation

The proposed solution was a 'Padding' which will be easy to wear, adjustable, and avoid direct contact of heavy loads on the shoulders. It will also make even weight distribution and will suit for both right and left-hand users. It was made with a cushion of recycled cloth.

With the help of a tailor, I made a product prototype which was used for testing purpose with 3-4 employees at different distribution centers. They liked it, it was useful for them and I could show the usefulness of the product to the leader.

10 tips for contextual interviews

During my study, some things proved to be very helpful when conducting contextual interviews:

1. Making sure to schedule the visits before going on site.

2. Being semi-structured and open-minded while conducting contextual interviews. I improvised and adapted the interview guideline if needed.

3. Making sure you are not disturbing others while they are working. Once you are on good terms with them, they will start sharing the things by themselves.

4. Asking a few simple introductory questions at the beginning before the start of the observation.

5. Observing as much as possible during the interview.

6. Building a good relationship with your interview partner and also other employees at the workplace helps to clarify the context and unexpected useful insights.

7. Giving people an idea about what are you doing and why before the interview.

8. Keeping interviews flowing but still focusing on the goals. As you are in the context of people, there are chances that the interview can go in different directions and you will end up getting interesting but irrelevant findings.

9. Documenting the findings in different formats like text, photos, audios, videos, or sketches and making sure to take the permission of your interview partner before doing so.

10. And of course, writing a summary of the visit, interesting findings, and things to explore right after you finish the interview.


Surely there are more characteristics, upsides, and downsides of contextual interviews – this is just an overview of the ones that applied to my project.

Conclusion

The aim of this project was to better understand human factors and ergonomics for LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas) cylinder delivery personnel. Starting from desk research, the process involved different methods like contextual interviews, strength tests of people, rapid entire body assessments, a checklist for workplace safety, ideation, prototyping, and testing. A proposed solution was an affordable product for employees to increase their work capacity, minimize the pain, and hence reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorder.

As with any other method, contextual interviews should always be backed up with other research methods, e.g. observations and desk research. The triangulation of research is key to valuable insights.

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