How your understanding of context can boost UX

Rachel is a huge fan of the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. She is absolutely in love with his style, and her favorite work of his is the “Elephants.” She’s had photos of this particular work as a poster on her wall, as a wallpaper on her phone, and possibly on every surface you could imagine. However, she says this experience is not paramount to seeing his original work, but what makes her feel this way. It’s really simple — CONTEXT.

She feels that, for some reason, the environment, time, and place of the original painting is entirely different from that on her phone or in her room. And she’s not wrong. Context makes all the difference.

You may have heard the word “context” used numerous times in multiple situations but never really thought of its true meaning. It may be hard to define context because it is always changing. However, there’s a definition that is almost 100% percent successful in describing ‘context.’ Dey A.K. defines context as the “information used to characterize the situation of an entity,” which is relevant between the user and the product/service. An entity could mean people, places, and things. Context can be: “Who you are, What you are doing, Who you are with, Where you are, What resources are nearby.”

You can trace the use of context to storytelling. If we break down a story structurally, we would see character, conflict, context, and craft — the 4Cs (Skillshare). In storytelling, context involves time, a place, and most times, power. What are the rules of your setting? Who has the power? Who/what characters do you see? What do they hear, smell, or feel? Think of context as a white room. A good story is successful if it: brings interest, instructs, involves, and inspires. You can easily relate to it.

When context is not clear, it can be easily misunderstood. We have seen a massive disruption of context since the industrial age. With the rise of technology, we’ve seen a disruption in communication, right from the time of telegraphs, which were used to convey messages across continents. The dissemination of information alongside the use of machines has created more complex networks. Who would imagine that the stories we share on Instagram could be detached from a physical location? Who would have thought that we could “walk on the ground and live on the cloud”? (O’Reilly)

Context goes a long way in how we perceive our world and the things around it. It can affect the way we interact with an object — for instance, the use of a spatula. I would not use a spatula in the kitchen to make soup. I can use a spatula to flip pancakes or eggs. What happens in the case of a kitchen spatula and a clay modeling spatula? I wouldn’t use them interchangeably because they both have a specific function. Their form, color, material, and finish make them unique to their purpose.

In the same way, in the UI/UX world, we need to understand the context of our users. In what place or time do they exist? Context could be complex, but I’ve placed a framework, coined by Cennydd Bowles, as a guide to understanding your user.

Seven flavors of context

  • Device
  • Environment
  • Time
  • Activity
  • Individual
  • Location
  • Social

These details make the difference.

One of the apps that I can say that leverages context is the Uber app. It starts with a device; it could be a phone or a tablet. Once you open the app, you see a map of streets and Uber cars nearby in real-time. Here you see a detailed idea of your environment. You see some important places, alleys, highways, highlighted on the map. The virtual map is designed to look almost identical to your environment.

There is a search box at the top, which asks you a question, “Where to?” and right next to the search bar, there’s a button that asks you if you would like to ride now or schedule your ride. It has given you a reference for time.

In this scenario, the user wants to go from place X to place Y. There are so many activities involved between the user requesting a ride and arriving at their destination. Then, there’s the user or the individual. Uber has done a great job of understanding its user’s personality, lifestyle, fears, likes, and dislikes, etc. It has tailored some of its features to its end user’s needs. The app covers a wide range of locations, but it focuses on just two: the present location and the future location. The user can even search for past or incoming rides, make changes to actions, reservations, ratings, and so on. Then, there’s the social aspect. You can share/split your ride with a friend. You can share the app to a friend you think would find it useful, and you get rewarded for sharing.

Uber’s focus on user context, asides solving a significant problem, maybe what has made the company grow so much. The Uber app is user-friendly and tailored to the needs of the user. It can be said to be context-aware.

We have seen a rise in context-aware computers. You may ask, “What does this mean?”

Context-aware computing is software that “adapts according to its location of use, the collection of nearby people and objects as well as changes to those objects over time.” You can see these systems in stores that have revolving doors, or motion-sensor lights in homes. Websites, apps, and online platforms are becoming more context-aware. On social media outlets, you get ads tailors to both your needs and your wants. On sites like google maps, you don’t even need to put the address of your location. The app plugs it in automatically. We also see devices projecting human-like qualities like the Amazon Echo, Google Alexa, and Apple Siri. People are interacting with their devices in ways that are similar to human interactions. We refer to this as anthropomorphism.

In recent times, we have seen a trend of dark UI/UX and animated user interfaces coupled with micro-interactions and screen transformations. Dark UI/UX is solving a user need. If we look at the context of computer users, we would realize that some people spend on an average 11 hours a day interacting with media on screens (Market research group, Nielson). The light emission coming from these devices can lead to eye strain, but with dark UI, this drops eye strain by a significant amount. In a study, it showed that visuals are processed 60, 000 times faster in the brain than text. We see more animated websites because there is a need to disseminate information in a fun and straightforward way. There are mouse-over interactions to keep users visually engaged.

In the book, Emotional DesignDon Norman says, “Design is really an act of communication which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” Understand your users and try to see the world through their lens. Anyone can design a website, but the difficulty lies in understanding your user’s motivations and behavioral patterns. So, before you design another website or app, use context as a tool to create meaningful user experiences.

Anyone can design a website, but the difficulty lies in understanding your user’s motivations and behavioral patterns.

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