Contextual Web Design Part 1: What is it, and why is it so important?

How often do you wish your device, or your experience with it,  was more intuitive in terms of:
(a) where you are
(b) what you’re doing?

Perhaps you’re in a rush and your device is asking for the same choices you previously selected. Or maybe you’re paralysed by too many choices, delivering the same outcomes. Where to start?

You're not alone… it’s a situation many of us find ourselves in right now. But there is a solution, and it's called context. 

This blog is the first in a series delving into the digital sense of context, how it relates to content, our interaction with it and the role it will have in our future.

Context: what is it and why is it important?

I like to think of context, in the digital sense, as Delivering relevant content based on a set of influencing / external variables.

To be more specific, I’ve mixed my definition with some variables that Derek Featherstone, an expert on the subject, regards as influences of context:

Delivering relevant, personalised content based on

  • Device
  • Location
  • Time
  • Proximity
  • State of Mind
  • Capabilities
  • Activity
  • Interest
  • Interaction

At first glance it’s a long list of what defines, determines and delivers context but if you group some of these factors together, commonalities will form, making each factor simpler to recognise.

Physical / Environmental

This contextual concept is already widely adopted. Websites and apps already ask permission to access our location information to provide directions, regional specific information or language translation. Obtained through various methods e.g. IP Address or GPS, we can immediately start to tailor digital experiences proactively and ask our users for confirmation to continue delivering content this way.

Whilst similarities can be drawn to location services, proximity is utilised differently. Think of location as ‘I’m in this region’ where promiximity is more, ‘I’m standing outside this coffee shop’. Technology such as beacons and GPS are already becoming established in our retail environments, communicating with our devices to deliver sales advertising, enhancing product experiences or providing sales assistants with our information. Museums are also using this type of contextual experience to extend a visitor's experience with their device, changing the experience as soon as they walk in the building. It’s like playing a game of virtual hot and cold.

Context plays a common-sense role in activity. Based on what I'm currently doing, how should my interactions differ? For instance, I’m heading out for a morning snowboard. My phone knows this and delivers me routes applicable to my skill level, the day's forecast and emergency contact details should I need them.

Time-based context is great for things like events or calendar functionality. Just knowing what’s on now or coming up makes choices and the filtering of information more relevant. This can also start to build a picture on when we like to interact with certain pieces of content - e.g. "at night I like to surf the entertainment news or watch a certain genre of programme, so hide the rest and just give me those options".

Virtual / Digital

As we're no longer tied to our desks, the need to understand the right type of information most applicable to the size of device and the connection that device has (connectivity speed) becomes more of a factor. Instead of trying to deliver a smaller version of your desktop experience on my phone, how about understanding my needs first? Prioritising the delivery of appropriate content and needs is true responsive design.

Capabilities can come in many flavours such as the capabilities of the systems we are using, the infrastructure/environment that supports our connectivity and the capabilities of the user (e.g. level of knowledge). This is especially important when dealing with accessibility. Context must take into account our differences and move past a one-size-fits-all model.

Contextual interactions can help make our experiences more meaningful. From simply re-formatting data, making it easier to digest based on our choices, to providing us only with interactions that make sense at that time, e.g. talking about movie tickets on iMessage, could predict calls-to-action to buy movie tickets and reference times at the local theatre.

Cognitive / Mental

Preference is a great way of filtering out information that is of no interest to us. We all have biases, Google knows this, and Amazon knows this. Our "virtual breadcrumbs" leave an easy-to-follow trail of our preferences,  providing brands and organisations with the means to influence the world around us.

State of Mind
So what are you thinking right now? Based on your previous behaviour and what you are looking at, I’m guessing, hungry. This is an interesting variable. How well do our systems know us, how much do we tell our systems? Is our state of mind predictable? How does the shape of your mood influence the content that you want to experience? Music is a great example - it has the ability to lift spirits or give us more energy. We're entering a time where predictive context will start to become mainstream, with Google and Apple integrating such technology into its core systems.

In Conclusion, and Looking Forward ...

Whilst each of these factors stand firm on their own, it’s when they're joined together that the real power comes into play. Apply this pairing of contextual variables to fundamentals such as how understanding motivation guides behaviour and the importance of framing and you will be well on your way to delivering relevancy, creating content that is meaningful in the long run - and possibly even enhancing lives.

Hopefully this has provided you with a deeper understanding of digital context and the opportunities it can provide. We'll be jumping in a little deeper next time ... stay tuned!