Context is queen, Task is king- Frank spillers teaches UX

Summary: Understanding and getting the right tasks represented in your design is critical to all UX. Usability and ease of use are measured by successful task completion. Supporting context of use is equally as critical because tasks live within user contexts of use. 

Why 'Task is King' and 'Context is Queen'

Tasks, or "jobs" are those aspects of use that dictate how users interact with systems. They are behaviors, actions, and interactions ultimately. Discovering the right task for your user is the first priority in User Experience Design. It is primary because, without the right task, nothing else matters. Without user motivation and needs represented in your interface or experience-- you end up trying to educate, train or coax a user into your model of the world, not theirs. So it is important to understand your user's model of the world, what problems they are trying to solve, and what makes sense to them. These are their tasks.

Tasks are also how we measure success with product or service usability. Usability testing ("user testing") is the most common way to assess system usability. The primary metric is, you guessed it, successful task completion. Can users complete their tasks? (Capture: Yes, No, Partial success)

So it is for these reasons that Task is King! The next logical question is, how do you discover that you are representing the right task in your user interface (UI)?

How do we discover tasks?

To understand user tasks, we look to explore the Context of Use. This is also called the 'problem space' as opposed to the solution space where tasks get translated into UI solutions. Context of use means understanding where, how, why, when, and under what conditions (environmental, physical, social, emotional) your product, service, or interface will be experienced or used.
woman with laptop on the beach
The popular "work remotely from the beach" meme (used for years in the early mobile smartphone advertising industry) is just plain misleading and wrong. Sand in your laptop? Salt, sand and water damage to your phone? Stressing out while trying to take in the beach view? On your phone solving work tasks while your child tries to play with you? Beaches are for relaxing and enjoying yourself, your family, or nature-- they are not for working especially with a laptop. I should know I have tried it many times---don't do it, or even pretend to do it! 
So the context of use is wrong with that particular fantasy-- pushed on every IT worker for many years now. It's a good reminder that getting context right dictates the quality of experience. Hence, context and task should be aligned in any product or service strategy.
Context is critical to understand because it shapes experience. Context is the container that lives around your tasks. Try to support a user task without supporting its rightful context and you may end up missing the "supporting cast", or features that make the task a complete solution for the user. Context research (field studies, ethnography, contextual inquiry) is where innovation in UX comes from. The grandfather of Human Centered Design, Don Norman, once said, 'ease of use is the easy part, it's desirability that really matters'. Desirability refers to getting the right tasks--user motivational and needs--- then making those tasks easy to use. Understanding desirability comes from understanding context of use. This is why Context is Queen!

12 Key Questions to ask around Tasks and Context

Good UX projects start with these 12 key questions, find evidence-based answers (real-world insights, observations, and data) and measure success based on how well a design supports and satisfies them:

  1. What is the user's task?
  2. Is this the right task?
  3. What about other users? (And: Who are those users or personas "roles"?-- while we're on that...)
  4. Do we know if the tasks we are designing for are based on actual user motivations/pain points/ needs?
  5. How do users do this today?
  6. When do they perform this task? (In the flow or at a time/place)
  7. Where do users perform this task?
  8. With whom do users perform this task?
  9. What are users trying to do, when they perform this task?
  10. What do they need while they are performing this task?
  11. How do users currently problem-solve this task?
  12. Why are users doing things one way or another?


In summary, tasks are very important in UX decisions, including evaluating the experience of a product or service. Tasks are those behaviors we are supporting, designing for, and influencing with UI elements, features, and functionality. Tasks rule UX. Good UX means user tasks were understood by designers, product managers, and developers and represented with an appropriate and easy to use interface. Context is equally vital and dictates the proper direction of task-centered design (see this classic piece by Lewis & Rieman) or jump to chapter 2 Getting to Know Users & their Tasks). Task-centered design is an essential approach that all good UX follows and must follow. Why? Because Task is King! Just remember tasks live within contexts. 

**Continue Learning with Frank Spillers in his UX Inner Circle: or get the Free 14-day trial. What is this? A UX guru, mentor, or guide and small peer group of professionals-- all learning together, sharpening their UX game. 

Note: The topic of the October 2020 UX Inner Circle monthly meet-up live MasterClass is User Research (online & in-person UX research).