By Frank Spillers

three people of color wait in a doctor's office for an appointment

Summary: Developing a depth of understanding of how users will interact with your product or service, specifically under which conditions of use and surrounding constraints, is vital to quality UX. Further to context of use is the ability to build this team skill called "contextual intelligence" continuously. The more a team factors for context of use, the more design decisions can benefit, leading to context-aware designs that respond and shape better user experiences. 

Ease of use is the easy part; context of use is what really matters.

All experience is context-dependent. Factoring context into your point of view is one of the powerful understandings Einstein is said to have had in creating Relativity Theory. Your point of view is relative to where you are standing. So as user experience professionals and teams that work with them, we always want to understand things from the user's point of view, not just from the company's. 

So we have to understand the role of context. Context is a container of our perceptions that influences how we approach a problem for example:

  • Change the timezone or time of day, and your mood is different 
  • Change the geography or market, and your view is different
  • Change the cultural lens, and your perspective is different

Detecting context requires overcoming a common bias, called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias:  A bias that results from the tendency to process and analyze information in such a way that it supports one's preexisting ideas and convictions. (Dictionary.com)

Typically, design decisions assume a user's context of use. Assumed usage scenarios abound in teams that are assumption-driven vs. insight-driven. In other words, the less you truly know about how, why, where, when, and what else is influencing a user as they perform their tasks-- the less of their context of use you will understand. Therefore, confirmation bias compromises your ability to assess context of use in a design scenario. 

How well UX teams tune into context of use matters. A user experience lives inside a changing sea of context. Users' contexts shift as they traverse physical, cognitive, social, and emotional challenges. Knowing when a task occurs and under which of these conditions is essential. Therefore all user experience is context-dependent. 

Systems need context-awareness. 

The more context-aware you are, the more you can transfer that to your system. The more context-aware your system is, the better it supports users and feels 'native.' Teams with context intelligence tend to create more context-aware experiences. So understanding and supporting different contexts underlies all good UX work. 

Let's look at some examples of context-aware systems that exist today:

  • Apple Watch notifies you when you've been sitting too long (the sensor detects a motion-free user state).
  • Nest thermostat auto-learns based on your patterns of setting temperature ranges at home (context detection via a learning algorithm). 
  • Your phone map gives you walking directions but detects driving, so it switches into Driving Directions mode. 

How about some examples of context-awareness we might see in the future that I feel are urgently needed based on real constraints (Cross-time zones calls; "Zoom fatigue" and sexual harassment in the Metaverse beta).

  • Communication systems (e.g., Skype, Teams, Zoom) that sense the person's timezone and give a social indicator to others (e.g., a moon, the time, etc.).
  • Conferencing systems allow you to interact without always being 'on camera' (a motion-sensitive avatar or silhouette, e.g., 'off-camera mode'). 
  • Virtual environments detect stalking, bullying, harassment, or sexual assault behavior and respond (give the user under attack super-powers or an eject button).

UX teams need context intelligence.

Context brings big-picture insights to features and UI-level discussions. The sad reality is that most teams lack context intelligence. Most organizations suffer from being too zoomed in to discussions of features and use cases or user stories. The probabilities of how a feature may be adopted or abandoned are lost in the details. 

UX teams starved of two-sided user research (user testing + field studies) are only as good as their brainstorming. Hint: Brainstorming as a technique in business has an abysmal track record. Furthermore, leaders that keep their teams zoomed in to the details of features and foster decisions based on hypothetical scenarios make the situation worse. Teams need the oxygen of real-world understanding of context. 

Practice Zoom-in, Zoom-out

Zooming out to 'see the context' equates to being an advanced leader vs. a non-innovator (Kanter, 2020). Furthermore, a study of twentieth-century successful leaders found that contextual intelligence was vital to their success. 

To build contextual intelligence in meetings, UX research teams will bring insights to discussions based on user observations. This facilitates a zoom-in/ zoom-out discussion:

  • Zoom in to the details, with examples of how a feature will work.
  • Zoom out to the context, how users are impacted by forces around them (physical, social, emotional). 

Matthew Kutz calls in his book Contextual Intelligence calls this thinking in 3D: using hindsight, insight, and foresight to integrate the past, present, and future to see possibilities. Applied to Engineering, Product, and UX teams, this looks like this: 

  • Hindsight (past): What do we know about user behavior, current limitations, past or bad experiences, competitor influences?
  • Insight (present): What are current gaps, issues, or problems? What friction is of particular concern right now, from the user's experience?
  • Foresight (future): What scenarios should we support going forward? What do we know about the user journey as it unfolds? How can we future-proof value for customers by fulfilling and exceeding their expectations and needs?

The only way to feel confident about these questions is with vital two-sided User Research, contributing an influential role in the business. 

How you build knowledge is critical.

Teams are good at arguing about how they think users will interact with products or services. The basis of "Inside-Out" design thinking is that knowledge gets constructed with all the biases of the group (groupthink). 

Bringing in an outsider or another person's point of view challenges' group think' as well as 'confirmation' bias. Having regular outside persons (user data) in your meetings helps keep you honest. Better yet, it enables you to zoom out from the business or technology needs or limitations and explore how users might interact with an important feature or functionality.  

Instead of generalizing on user behavior, leaving out a particular context, or distorting how users interact with your system, you can draw on observed facts. Here are some favorite evidence-based context insights I've gathered from hundreds of Field Studies.

(See if you can identify what type of challenge this is: physical, cognitive, social, or emotional):

  • In a dimly lit space, restaurants managers are moving around at the end of the shift and only quickly glancing at the screen from ten feet away (large numbers needed). 
  • The patient has a high degree of anxiety and is scared of her diagnosis, adding a degree of stress to reading the instructions on the device she's holding. 
  • Two days before the tax day deadline, the student needs to figure out how to submit a tax return for the first time. It's midnight, and the free tax-help support center is closed. 
  • After a 13-hour flight, the user opens 'contact driver' on the app to order. Calling a local phone number does not work. International numbers are not accepted. Note: this was the default in the Uber app for many years until they added in-app messaging with drivers. 
  • A couple that bought their last home 15 years ago has forgotten essential knowledge. Plus, home-buying was life-changing and a little stressful. They have no idea whether to explore 'first-time buyer' resources for questions or something else. 
  • A taxi driver waiting for the next job to appear in his queue takes a snooze in a car park. The passenger on the way to the airport is in a frenzy when the taxi arrives. Sorry, the driver says they redesigned this system, and the open queue is buried a few screens down; I didn't see your request until I checked now. 

Getting better at Context intelligence

Context intelligence is a 'soft skill' teams can improve. The fastest way to strengthen this skill is to talk to users. Remember, the more user contact you have, the more 'human-centered' your design process. You will eventually add Zoom-Out power to your conversations so that.

Instead of declaring 'Users will use it like this…."

You can ask: "How likely is it that users will use it like this….?"

Here are more questions that might help build context advocacy or the case for context research if you find there are no answers.

  • Under which conditions will the user use this?
  • What is going on in the space users will use it?
  • Who else is involved in the user's workflow?
  • What physical limitations must we factor in?
  • What knowledge does the user bring to the task that we must support?
  • What safety needs does the user have? (eg. Privacy, stalking, harassment)
  • What stress cases do we need to factor in?
  • What time-based constraints should we factor in?
  • What is the highest priority action/ task the user needs?
  • When do users do this, and why? (Under what conditions?)

Contextual intelligence in teams leads to more context-aware products

Contextual intelligence is a marker of better product or service decision-making. Better yet, understanding a user's context of use helps you build more context-sensitive designs. While this looks like an innovation opportunity, it is a critical requirement of good UX. If your products or services are context-poor, their UX will be less responsive to user needs and constraints, in short, less adaptable. Adapting to how users live and work with your design is more critical than easy to use. In conclusion, a product without context-awareness is like a beautiful, easy-to-use watch that is not visible at night or in dark places. The better teams are at building contextual intelligence, the more they are likely to detect opportunities that live beyond data but reside in surrounding real-world contexts. 

Frank Spillers, MS

CEO/CXO Experience Dynamics

Learn more? Attend this webinar at Frank's UX Inner Circle professional community: Designing context-aware experiences.