designing for context

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As designers take on new problems of convergence and ubiquity, we find ourselves facing new challenges. The products we create are accessed through multiple devices, different channels and a wide audience. How do we accommodate the context of use?


Slide deck!

We have to design for multiple contexts (situation people are in while they are using a particular product/service): location, time, form and technology, relationship, and product ecosystems. Challenge for designers: solve problems for those contexts.

When you do not have (or take advantage of) direct contact with the people you are designing for, you are designing in the dark.

Mobile first is great, but perhaps a way to make mobile really first is to design for desktop first as a way to get to know your product and audience before you bring it to mobile (finding things that are appropriate vs. mapping an existing experience and mapping wholesale to a new channel)? Go for consistency in experience without being redundant. Go for enhancing with mobile affordances.


Usage of a product for different lengths of time. People use your product, go away (live real life), and then come back (and have a real life before they start using your product as well).

“Now” is also an important time. User Testing: Monitor the use of the product in real time — if they give their phone number, call them as they are using the tool and ask them to talk about their context. Get on their timeline.

Design for the 2-second tasks (whipping your phone out and checking your balance) vs. engaging with an app (searching for something) vs. things that require 2 hours at your desk.

Design for collapsing time-consuming, complex tasks (filing your taxes) and turn into the impossible 2-second task (taking a photo of your W-2 to file a simple tax return).

As we engage with products over long-term, the relationship changes: we might grow out of products, or grow into a closer usage relationship.


Beyond the products. Social, brand, technology realms, etc. Where a product fits into the superset of activities related to the product (what could enhance, integrate, or interrupt the use of a product that is not part of the product itself).


Common locations. Location changing. Where do you do different tasks and what device channels are you using there? For example, iPads aren’t usually used in a store context, but phones are. Mobility within the workplace is a legitimate form of location-aware products. It’s about radiating zones of location that people move between from home outward (or office outward) and so on. Service design tools.

User testing: live streaming from a location, live monitoring.

Don’t forget direct sunlight and the hell it plays with visual design (outside is a location too).

Form & Technology

Screen size, input methods, technical constraints. Constraint-focused: Mobile tends to concentrate your product (due to its constraints) down to the most valuable features? But not every product needs mobile. Form as a concentrator.

Affordance-focused: what are the key features of each device channel that do not exist in the others? Recognizing the “wow” capabilities of each device channel; form is an opportunity. Unlock the potential for each device.

Brand & Relationships

How you feel about a brand influences how you are going to feel about interacting with a product / service, so it’s something that interaction designers need to pay attention to.