November 27, 2018

Context, the enabler of design

Context is king. How might we get more context?

Context is the understanding of relationships between elements in one’s environment. That environment varies depending on the perspective of that “someone.”

Let’s say you’re a freshly minted junior designer at a startup like me — the agent is you, the new hire. The startup serves as the environment. To work effectively in a startup, you have to figure out what the moving parts are and how they are related. These moving parts could be infinite — your team mates, the work culture, team dynamics, job roles, level of funding, design processes, amount of ownership, organizational structure, company policies, and a lot more.

It’s impossible to completely understand every factor that contributes to context. There is no real way to pin it down. Our mission then is to get the right snapshots of the overall picture.

Our goal was never to completely understand an environment’s totality. For our purposes as designers, attempting to grasp as much context as we can is enough. This persistence allows us to design thoughtfully.

We do this by going through the lived experience of our subjects— the people who use the products we create.

Don’t get me wrong. It is entirely plausible for someone to design successfully just with stock knowledge. This is why design patterns exist, after all. Competitive analysis is one fallback, but you can never really understand why someone designed something in a specific way for their users. That person is designing for a different context.

Therefore, it’s a hundred times better to build something by carefully going through the experiences of our users, in our own playground. When we empathize with people’s wants, needs, goals, motivations and pain points, we arm ourselves with the context necessary to create and design more relevant, usable, and meaningful products.

“Anthropology is too important to be left to anthropologists.”
Gant McCracken, Cultural Anthropologist

Contextualizing the individual

To contextualize better, we need to make sure we understand the latent needs of people. Latent needs are things that people cannot articulate by themselves — either for the inability to do so or the lack of vocabulary.

Andrew Hinton created a simple diagram to illustrate the three dimensions by which we can understand user behavior, ability and motivation. A simple framework we can use to understand and empathize with the user. These are the dimensions that should be considered when we are forming our personas.

Personal-Behavioral Context


Think environmental and sensory stimuli, physical condition, activities or hobbies of the user.

  • Is the user sitting on a chair in a coffee shop?
  • Studying or working out at the moment of use?
  • Standing on the LRT cramped up with other people?
  • Disabled or able bodied?


Think about what the user is feeling.

  • Are they tired?
  • Confident?
  • Anxious?
  • Desperate?
  • Uncomfortable?
  • In a rush?
  • Stressed when accessing your website?


Think about the education level of the user and what their learning behavior is.

  • Is the user a highly educated person?
  • Comfortable with dealing with a lot of complex information?
  • Adaptive to new interaction modes?

Contextualizing the situation

If we want to design seamless workflow experiences, conducting a methodical analysis of the core tasks of our users will be of value.

The Situation-Need-Task Model provides the necessary mindset for us to focus on identifying the origin of these said tasks. The origin is usually a situation a user is faced with that spawns corresponding needs and then tasks that are derived from those needs.

Consider the following:

Situation: as a junior designer, you need to find a side project within the company. You settled with organizing a meet-up for your local design community.

Need: one of the needs of this meet-up is to curate a speaker line-up.

Tasks: the tasks derived from this need can be many: creating a theme, writing an email template, creating a potential list of people, contacting them one-by-one, and designing a simple poster to feature them.

How do we gather context?

The data we collect can come from a variety of sources, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative. Since we want to go and find the why’s of our users and understand their latent needs, there may be a preference for more qualitative data — the bread and butter for these types of studies are your interviews, diary studies, and ethnographic studies. Here are some simple techniques from IDEO that will help you elicit context in creative ways:

  1. Show me —ask your user to show workplaces, processes, things he or she interacts with, spaces, and tools. Take pictures and record notes so you can recall later. Have them walk you through a day in their lives.
  2. Draw it — ask the people you are interviewing to visualise their experience through a drawing or diagram. It can disprove your own assumptions and show how people think about and prioritize their activities.
  3. 5 Why’s — ask your why questions. Ask why for the first five answers your users tell you. It forces them to examine and communicate the underlying reasons for their behaviour and attitudes. Never assume you completely understand. Always dig deeper.
  4. Think Aloud — as they perform or execute a specific task, ask participants to say and describe aloud what they are thinking about. This helps uncover users’ motivations, concerns, perceptions, and reasoning.

In summary

Using these perspectives allow us to build rich context about what our users are aiming to do. By understanding the scenarios they are coming from, we are more equipped to design for their needs, wants, goals, and motivations.

There are plus points when we can observe user behavior in their natural environment and workflows. If we can squeeze in more interviews and ethnographic pursuits, insights into these lived experiences can expand our context.

When we take into account the individual and situational dimensions of the user, we can produce much more sophisticated design artifacts for our teams, democratizing context for the people who build stuff.

By expanding our context, we can make informed decisions so we don’t end up solving a median layer of the problem. We go to the heart of the user’s deepest needs. The results are products and services that our users truly love; creations that provide a meaningful change in people’s lives.

Originally for Kalibrr Design

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