Thinking About Context

Successful user experiences boil down to a deep appreciation of context. Consider the following. We write specifically for the web because reading online is clearly different than reading a novel. We integrate social media because it’s well-established that Facebook, Twitter, and the like drive traffic. We advocate for responsive design because screen size can change an experience. These practices influence our designs because they account for the circumstances—the context—in which our interfaces are used.

While practical, context at this level is actually quite shallow. In our world today, technology, the web, and connectedness are fundamental to our existence, impacting how we behave and think. As a result, context in the broadest sense is really about our evolved relationship with this digital landscape.

Imagine you’re launching a product website. The product you are designing solves a problem, but your target users are probably making do without it. You expect their full attention, but they’re most likely multitasking or distracted. You want these folks to download your app, but their phone is already filled with pages of once-opened apps. To keep them invested, you send targeted emails, but people are drowning in email.

All in all, this is the real context in which we design and build websites. It’s a challenging environment made possible by technology and enabled by both those who produce and those who consume.

In this reality, it is then our responsibility, as producers of user experiences, to design through this context. How does this thing I’m designing actually fit into people’s lives? How can I earn and keep someone’s trust? How can I contribute to the digital landscape without adding to the noise? As the distinction between offline and online blurs, these questions about context are what matter.