Contextual Web Design Part 2: Choice, it's all about choice.

There are many reasons why context is so important however the one that stares me in the face every day is the overwhelming quantity of information I need to wade through and the never-ending amount of choices I have to make. 

I guess this isn’t something new; we have been plagued with too much choice for decades. Just trying to decide which type of peanut butter* I should buy can feel impossible. Then, once I’ve made my choice, toasted my toast and start to spread the buttery delight, I suffer from ‘buyer’s remorse’ and feel worse than when I started.

There have been many studies on the effects of such overloads to our senses with choice paralysis and decision fatigue becoming more mainstream mental diagnoses.

* If you are ever poised with such a problem you should try NZ’s own Pic’s Really Good Peanut Butter… it’s more than amazing.

PeanutButter.jpg (1)
Being overwhelmed is something we are regularly exposed to and (right) the best Peanut Butter in the universe

Anticipatory Design

There is an insightful article penned by the CEO of Huge, Aaron Shapiro, referencing Design Fatigue, the draining effect that occurs as we make more and more decisions throughout our day, and Anticipatory Design, where decisions are made on our behalf by artificial systems that have learnt from our past behaviours and choices.

Anticipatory design is fundamentally different: decisions are made and executed on behalf of the user.

Aaron Shapiro, CEO of Huge,

John Tierney wrote about Design Fatigue in his co-authored book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, outlining how the constant decisions we have to make day in and day out mentally exhaust us, often meaning our brain is looking for shortcuts, resulting in either reckless choices or actually not making a choice.

Referencing both these articles you can start to see how Anticipatory Design could help resolve the fatigue issue in an attempt to deliver more contextual convenience. But I still want a level of choice, maybe just from a smaller subset of relevant options.

Context Aware Computing (The smarts keep getting smarter)

Apple's Siri (left) and Google's Now on Tap (right) go toe to toe

It’s common to be exposed to the use of context (or what the industry is now referring to as Context Aware Computing) through our daily interactions on the internet.

Amazon’s ‘what others thought’ or ‘what others purchased’ is a powerful contextual mechanism narrowing down and influencing our selection. Many other sites use our location or cookies to track our interactions and then tailor content to promote new services or calls to action on repeat site visits.

So it’s not surprising to see the potential opportunities Context Aware Computing has and why it has become a big priority for the major players and influencers in the marketplace. 

Last month saw Apple announce a smarter proactive Siri who will be able to perform a higher level of service. For example, Siri will have the ability to keep track of your calendar and the traffic report to let you know when you should leave for a meeting based on prevailing traffic conditions. Or perhaps you are out and about; Siri can suggest places to visit based on the time and your location.

At the same time Google is releasing a minor but extremely powerful update to its Android OS with what the Googlers refer to as ‘Google Now on Tap’. For example you may be reading an email from a friend who mentions a movie. ‘On Tap’ can suggest referral links to find out more information about that movie as well as access to other applications, such as watching the trailer on YouTube, without the need to leave the current application you are in.

We are also witness to our smart devices coming armed with built in sensors. All this will enable applications and developers with the ability to learn from our behaviours and, with good intentions, provide us with more valued and relevant services.

Whilst these technical advancements are focused on providing a more helpful context across our interactions and better, deeper linking between applications, I still reserve a small level of skepticism. Potentially we are witnessing a new level of Artificial Intelligence (AI) seeping into the mainstream equipped to harvest data and make decisions on our behalf. As a result of our ever increasing digital footprint, we will need protection and protocols put in place to mitigate the dangers of manipulation, hidden agendas and other risks that may arise.

I see a Person of Interest scenario here. So between Google and Apple, who is ‘The Machine’ and who is ‘Samaritan’ - I’ll let you decide.

Person of Interest is a TV series that explores the realm of artificial intelligence. It is in its fourth season, so go on and binge watch. You know you want to.

Other forms of context

Netfix (left) and Spofity (right) use context features to enhance their services

So let’s step back from the all-wondrous, all-knowing and often creepy AI and introduce a few other forms of contextual services that are available to us.

Music streaming service Spotify has recently released an update featuring adaptive running streams. This automatically delivers ‘the music you love perfectly timed to your run’ – the speed and tempo adjusting according to your running pace. That’s not all; Spotify is also evolving its offering in order to provide smarter playlists. Suggestions are made based on a user’s preference of choosing music based on experiences and activity rather than music genres e.g. ‘That winter feeling’ rather than Hip Hop.

One push of a button and I was dropped into an action soundtrack that had me running like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. One slight drawback however was that I was running at a far more intense pace and was spent after a few k’s. Next time I will use the Romantic Comedy option.

Steve (the amateur runner and author of this article) Martin

This type of evolution is also reinforcing how we should be considering, and then designing for, the experience, which is a whole other blog post.

Switching channel to Netflix, this entertainment service uses our previous choices to suggest new programmes and viewing options. Whilst that isn’t what I would exactly class as contextual, the smarts come in if you combine Netflix with your phone and accessories such as Chromecast. After choosing something to watch on your phone and sending it to your TV via the Chromecast device, your phone turns into a remote control since it knows that you are watching something. Netflix could also strengthen its personalisation in the future if it starts to capture and respond to a viewer’s mood or time of day e.g. "I’ve only got 15 minutes of time available" options or "I like to watch comedy on Wednesdays".

As the Internet of Things becomes more integrated into our everyday lives we will see our environments becoming more intelligent and adapting to what we are doing. This will range from turning the lights on when we enter the room, to turning the volume down on music, pausing the TV when the phone rings or even suggesting the evening’s entertainment for date night.

The last area I’ll touch on is how context is playing out in the physical retail experience. Using proximity sensors and facial recognition, Personalised Contextual Marketing will see our retail environments communicating with us through our devices, rewarding us for loyalty, learning from our habits, our purchase history and personal preferences.

Whether it’s bridging the virtual and physical world through augmented reality, alerting us to deals or just enabling the sales assistant to pull up data on us, this will develop into a more personalised and intimate shopping ecosystem. Imagine the sales person addressing you by name, or your phone alerting you that those trainers you've been coveting are finally on sale and, even better, in your size and favourite colour – orange!

The role context will play in our lives

Whilst the contextual freight train has left the station, we have only just started to scratch the surface of its possibilities. As with all things technology related, this locomotive is picking up speed and before we know it our lives will become quite different; some of it for the better and, like all things, some of it not so much.

Choice is ultimately what makes us human. So I stand by my belief that all our choices shouldn’t be taken away but somewhat narrowed in order to simplify our lives and interactions within our noisy worlds. At the same time, it will be up to us as citizens to keep ensuring our privacy is protected and that our digital footprints are not abused. The level at which you allow Context Aware Computing to play in your life should be a personal decision and remain that way.

I’ll leave you with one final quote recently posted by Fast Company about this double edged sword.

“Companies are striving to know you. The negative side of knowing: they want to know you in order to sell more product to you by developing very contextual messaging that resonates with you. On the positive side: companies need to know you to better serve you.”

Giovanni Calabro for Fast Company

Next up I will be covering designing and planning for MVI (Minimum Viable Interaction) and shedding light on fundamentals such as how understanding motivation guides behaviour and the importance of framing, two theories mentioned in the first post.

And as always your feedback and insights are very welcome on Twitter. Till next time.