SI 501: Contextual Inquiry and Consulting Foundations (fall term)

The University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) is now seeking clients for free consulting as part of a master’s degree level course, SI 501: Contextual Inquiry and Consulting Foundations. 

From September to December, 2017, master’s degree students will work with clients to identify, analyze, and recommend solutions for client problems related to products, services, and internal information processes. Over the years, our students have worked with more than 200 partner organizations including corporations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, libraries, and schools. 

Ideal client projects fit within one of the following categories: 

  • Improving or repairing an existing information or communication process;  
  • Improving or repairing an existing product or service;  
  • Evaluating service design, such as processes for walk-in customers at service desks.

Viable clients often articulate problems that affect organizational and communication efficiency and productivity, such as:

  • “We have channels for distributing information to our constituents, but the right information isn’t always shared.”
  • “We keep adding staff to our service desk, but the lines haven’t gone down.”
  • “We have a database, but we aren’t putting in or taking out the information that we need.”
  • “A patron ordered a book, and they got it -- but it took weeks to get it to them.”

In their capacity as consultants, faculty-coached student teams collect data related to your client project through meetings and interviews with project stakeholders, observations of work practices and information system usage, and examination of artifacts (e.g. physical workspaces, databases, social media accounts, etc.). The student teams then synthesize and analyze this qualitative data, and produce formal reports through which they present their analyses and recommendations for future action. (Student teams will not be expected to implement solutions as a part of this course, though many will be available the following summer for internships.) 

Examples of past projects: 

  • Reviewing a health clinic's telephone queue and voicemail system, with attention to why call abandonment rates are so high.
  • Investigating how an online job-matching company could improve retention and engagement of its resume-posting users.
  • Exploring how a public library's process to acquire and weed materials among its three branches could be integrated and streamlined.
  • Understanding the bottlenecks of a non-profit organizations complex reporting requirements, and how to relieve them.

Clients should meet the following criteria: 

  • Have an information process, service, or system already in place that needs improvement.
  • Be able to provide at least five relevant people who can be interviewed and observed in person by the student team in September-November, 2017.
  • Are within 50 miles of Ann Arbor (preference is given to local projects).
  • Can accommodate the following timeline. 

Anticipated timeline for clients for Fall 2017: 

  1. Summer 2017: client proposal and refinement of parameters with SI 501 teaching staff
  2. September/October 2017: initial meeting, interviews and observations
  3. November 2017: feedback and follow-up interviews
  4. December 2017: final report and presentation

Client testimonials:

  • A private company: “The team did a good job learning about the context of our company and the challenge we were having, which ultimately allowed them to make recommendations that were relevant and helpful for us.”
  • An academic library: “The team did a great job! I appreciate the final report immensely, and really appreciated the production of tangible deliverables I can use.”
  • A university service department: “They understood our complex challenges, and came up with some good ideas for us to tackle to improve our communications and relationships with our customers.”
  • A non-profit organization: “We have some complex systems very specific to our industry that usually take people a while to catch on to but the students really picked things up quickly.”

Submitting a project

To propose a project, please complete this very brief form as soon as possible, and no later than July 31, 2017.

If your project proposal appears to be a good fit for this consulting opportunity, a member of the SI 501 teaching team will contact you to develop and refine your project during the summer (2017). There is no cost to client organizations.  


Kentaro Toyama (faculty)
Melissa Chalmers (staff)
SI 501: Contextual Inquiry and Consulting Foundations
University of Michigan School of Information

About SI 501:

This master’s degree level course provides professional training and skill-building in user-centered design via the basic principles of an established process known as “contextual inquiry.” Working in cross-disciplinary teams with real-world clients, students advance their skills and learn new strategies to manage project timelines and responsibilities; conduct interviews; observe work practices and information usage; abstract, analyze, and synthesize qualitative data; and present their conclusions and recommendations in a persuasive manner.