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

The University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) is now seeking potential clients for free consulting. Ideal client projects fit within one of the following categories:

  • Improving or repairing information and communication processes;  
  • Customer discovery, or understanding how customers would perceive new technology systems, programs, or projects;
  • Evaluating service design, such as processes for walk-in customers at service desks.

This masters-level course builds skills 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. Over the years, our students have worked with more than 200 partner organizations including corporations, libraries, government agencies, non-profits, and schools. 

Viable clients often articulate problems 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.”
  • “I know we have people who want to volunteer, but we don’t know how to get them here and use them best.”
  • Examples of past projects:
  • Reviewing a health clinic's telephone queue and voicemail system, with attention paid to why call abandonment rates were 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.

Anticipated timeline for clients: 

  • September/October - initial meeting and interviews
  • November - feedback and follow-up interviews
  • December - final report and presentation

Clients should meet the following criteria:

  • They have an information process already in place that needs improvement.
  • They can provide at least five relevant people who can be interviewed and observed in person by the student team in September-October.
  • Are within 50 miles of Ann Arbor (preference is given to local projects).

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.

If your proposal is selected, a team of UMSI master's students coached by faculty will conduct an investigation as part of the one-semester course, SI 501: Contextual Inquiry and Consulting Foundations.  There is no cost to client organizations. 

To propose a project, please complete this very brief form as soon as possible, and no later than August 15.



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