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Context is key for effective UX Design

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When designing for UX, it’s the hidden factors that determine whether you solve a problem, or create a new one.

I recently read UX Researcher Sam Ladner’s commentary on why Cortana doesn’t work at work. She argues that the virtual assistant would have far less utility in the workspace, despite Microsoft’s intentions. As she explains, it’s a matter of context:

First, Cortana will make more “boundary work” for office workers. The mere act of trying to keep your private life private at work is turns out to be, well, work. Recent research has found that keeping work and life private actually causes cognitive overload. If people use Cortana as intended, she is poised to make that much worse.

Second, Cortana demands office workers treat their workplaces as if they were kings and queens, instead of pawns and rooks. Voice interactions require workers to own their workspace, something that we know they do not do. Typical workers share their workspaces with others, and because we are apt social animals, we tend to comply with unwritten rules of workplace etiquette. [Emphasis mine.]

In short, many of us will be uncomfortable blurting instructions to a desk-side robot.

Daily problems

This had me thinking about all the moments in my life where, due to context, I didn’t use a product as intended.

Here’s one example: on my way to a restaurant for lunch, I found an app that would let me order my food in advance so that I could bypass the line. Sounds like a fine idea! But this brought up a slew of questions — in a busy restaurant at noon, where do I pick up the food? It wasn’t clear. How long would it take? This also wasn’t clear. Should I insert myself at the front of the line and demand my meal? What if the cashiers are busy with other customers? Will I inconvenience the staff and annoy the waiting patrons?

The anxiety about the process of ordering in advance was worse than had I chosen to wait in line

The anxiety about the process of ordering in advance was worse than had I chosen to wait in line. Which in the end, is exactly what I did.

Later on, after the trauma had worn off, I decided to try ordering a coffee through a local shop’s app. This experience was better. The app gave me a time for pickup as well as an exact location (an exterior window) where my coffee would be waiting. No ambiguity. The designers understood the implications of a chaotic café and designed around it.

Professional problems

In 2016, I was part of the team that designed the new FreshBooks iOS app. From the start, we knew we had to better understand how our users — freelancers and small business owners—used mobile to run their businesses.

Through interviews, we learned that mobile helped our users plan their day, set reminders and check payments. What surprised us was that many were reluctant to use mobile while in the presence of their clients.

What tool do you use, the mobile app that will let you enter a quote straight into the system…or your notebook, crammed with post-its and to-do lists…?

The reason was simple: using mobile implied distraction. For example, put yourself in the shoes of a wedding planner. You’re with a new client, and you’re working out an itemized list of services that will turn into a quote.

What tool do you use, the mobile app that will let you enter a quote straight into the system and send it to your client immediately; or your notebook, crammed with post-its and to-do lists, within which you’ll scrawl the list out in pen?

We found that many would choose the latter. When using mobile, how does the client know you’re not answering another client’s email? Or texting your mother? Or playing Dots?

The notebook, meanwhile, announces “I’m focused on you.” This is the same reason why many people prefer to write in a notebook in a meeting, or when conducting interviews.

Perception is reality

As humans, context has great implications on our behaviour. Environmental and social factors don’t just impact our own perception. They affect how we’re perceived by others as well as how we feel we’re perceived by others. This can be a strong motivator.

This is especially true when we’re worried about negative perception. We’ll do anything to avoid it. When ordering food, I was anxious about looking like a pushy jerk. So I decided to wait. When working with clients, small business owners worried about appearing distracted and disrespectful. So they optimized perception over productivity. In the case of Cortana, knowledge workers may feel judged by their peers when barking out to-do lists. So they may choose not to use it. 

What can we do?

Designing around context is a hard problem. Context varies moment to moment. Every human comes with their unique set of anxieties and apprehensions. It’s not enough to predict these hidden factors from behind our desks. As designers, we need to experience our user’s context first hand.

This means getting out of the office and seeing the world through the eyes of who we’re designing for. Becoming skilled in the subtle art of observation. Understanding what solutions our users are “hiring” and “firing” throughout their daily lives.

These are skills that take time to build, and may be intimidating to many of us. It certainly was to me. But take the plunge. When you come back from your first field visit, invigorated and surprised, you’ll know it was worth it.

Because one thing’s for certain—whether it’s eating lunch, pleasing a client, or working with a virtual assistant, context is key.

Aching to get out into the field? Here are some resources to help you get started: Practical Ethnography — Sam Ladner, Interviewing Users—Steve Portigal.

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