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CONTEXTUAL WEB DESIGN PART 3: WRAPPING IT ALL UP

Our previous two blogs looked at what makes up context and its many functions across our applications and devices. But how can we use what we’ve learned to enhance a user’s experience on our sites and how do you start planning for contextual content and actually making this happen?

Designing for the minimum viable interaction

It’s great having devices and applications that are able to deliver this type of enhanced contextual experience but without the relevant content, how useful is it?

As we’ve previously investigated, context isn’t something that lives by itself. It’s part of something much bigger. 

Recently, I had the privilege of listening to Derek Featherstone on this subject. Derek defines context as ‘Minimum Viable Interaction’ (MVI), or “content working for the person, so they don’t need to hunt for it: it’s just there as we would expect it”.

MVI requires a deep understanding of our users and their behaviours. We also need to clearly understand our own content and how that may be communicated differently.

Derek also stressed the need to understand that context priority changes over time and how marrying geolocation and time variables allows us to assign smart content priorities (hierarchy) - letting the information find the users.

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Event based example demonstrating how context changes based on time, device and location.

Whilst one could argue that this won’t work for everyone, it makes sense to focus on the majority. As long as we explain the benefits in doing so, we can provide the content most likely to be needed. Couple this with a reset mechanism on context and we should achieve an overall degree of user happiness. 

Planning for the minimum viable interaction

Planning for the minimum viable interaction is actually very simple and fits into an existing area of the digital landscape, the Content Strategy. In addition to the content life cycle and specific auditing and creation tools all we now have to do is add one more layer to the mix — the Context Map.

A Context Map describes how a piece of content, physical or virtual, will react to different contextual experiences, be that device, location / time specific, or a combination of factors.

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Examples of a Context Map and Percentages Priority Table (based on sketches by Derek Featherstone).

Once planned out, your website / app just needs the smarts to deliver it. As mentioned previously there are a variety of ways to achieve this, through basic means such as cookies and geolocation to more advanced behaviour tracking and login type functionality. It should all come back to the user, their needs and making their life better. Remember even the smallest improvement can equal a great reward.

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Small contextual improvements provide increased value to users.

Context in content marketing

When it comes to content marketing - especially in terms of mobile -  the money is on brands which can contextualise their message based on a consumer’s emotional moment.

In order to increase receptivity, you have to contextualize your message to align with the consumer's emotional moment.

Ari Brandt is the CEO and co-founder of MediaBrix

Native apps have a leg-up on the agnostic web (unless you are logged in) where they can use the data they know about you to identify your emotions, when you feel at your most positive and position themselves at the most opportune time. According to Ari Brandt, co-founder of MediaBrix, when a consumer is approached the moment should be contextualised by:

  • Acknowledging what they are doing
  • Explaining why you are there and how you can enhance their experience
  • Adding to the moment, offering something extra (not an ad)
  • Using sensory methods such as sounds, touch or feel (e.g. slight vibration)

Of course, it's important to track and validate once your unique contextual consumer engagement has been created, to ensure it’s hitting the right mark and offering value.

In addition to Ari’s methods, I found a great piece from content marketer and entrepreneur Brian Clark who recently spoke about the role context plays in creating understanding and how you can use it to alter a user’s perspective in a non-manipulative way.

  • Firstly: position the overall context in which your customer’s problem exists. You can also mention existing solutions and their shortfalls to create a 'negative expectation' scenario.
  • Secondly: share the benefits of solving the customer’s problem in a particular way before positioning your benefits. Obviously you don’t want to appear biased so approaching it without the ‘sell’ is focused on educating and informing the customer. Based on education, your product/solution should stand out from the rest and be the logical choice. I also feel that being authentic with integrity will win in the long run.
  • Lastly: offer your product/solution (which is better than the rest). This counteracts the previous negative expectation you've positioned with a positive one coupled with your offering. This also helps you present a market differentiation.

So, here is a good question to ask: Is your content within a context that helps people understand why they're doing business with you?

Now step into my office… and tell me your troubles.

So we’ve got some tools and ways to plan for context - but what do you put in those new spaces? You could just write as normal or you could step back, address the needs of your audience and utilise a few physiological behaviours that can help to contextualise the experience. 

The art of framing

There is something deeper than just chucking up content for easy scanning, or ensuring you have introduced enough SEO-friendly words to please Google. There is a craft to the way content is created and communicated that can impact the decision-making process and guide our judgements. This is called Framing.

The context in which information is delivered, shapes assumptions and perception about That information.

Steven Bradley

We have all seen what happens when material is taken out of context. It often becomes misleading or meaningless. The media provides a prime example, where people are often quoted in complete isolation to the situation they were in, or when they said it.

Framing presents a layered, wider view of our information. It can support it, or aim to discredit. It can help convey a better understanding of a message, or present a spin towards a bias.

These are important concepts to grasp, as what we have to say or show can be hugely altered by context and framing.

Visual designers will be the first to tell you that framing is fundamental to what they do. Mood, emotion and determining the disposition of the audience are key factors in ensuring a clear context to what will come next. 

Choice architecture

The way our choices are presented can impact our decision making. This is prevalent in the SaaS (Software as a Service) world where a great deal of planning, thought and testing has gone into how the features / benefits are described, the well positioned default and the number of choices visible. There is nothing random here. As outlined in the first article of this series we are presented with an overload of choices and that can be counter-productive. Choice architecture, originally coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, was thoughtfully designed as a means to improve the consumer decision-making process by minimising biases and errors that are a result of limited information, time or our own capability.

There is a plethora of information about choice architecture, from its sub-parts, such as Defaults, Choice over Time (present vs future), partitioning options and attributes (grouping), avoiding attribute overload, translating attributes (comparing based on what consumers care about).

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The simple mechanism of highlighting the 'most popular' item influences our choice.

Expectations and exposure

Expectations are also an important consideration in regards to context. As consumers we have extremely high expectation and we all know what it feels like to have our expectations met, or (more regularly), not met. Especially online, where our virtual expectation is one thing only to discover something quite the opposite is the reality. Here’s a funny example from an episode of This American Life (Prologue).

Clear, honest and credible expectations will help you convince your audience and grow brand loyalty as a result.

Conventions

On the other hand, conventions are expectations of how things should behave. Think usability and patterns of behaviour. We all have pre-defined expectations of how things are supposed to act, e.g. how to turn a tap, how to open a door and more recently in our technology evolution, how to swipe to access/answer your smart phone. Conventions are usually wrapped around a context and being mindful of this factor will help to ensure that you build the right system relating the virtual and our real world mental modes*.

*Mental modes help shape our behaviour and define our approach to solving problems and carrying out tasks.

Exposure

Another method in the expectation toolbox is something called the exposure effect, or the familiarity principle.  This subtle approach forms familiarity and positivity over time, using repeat calls to action or repeat exposure. There are obvious pros and cons with this method in advertising. Whilst there can be positive effects in new and unfamiliar brands, there can equally be ambivalent and negative association with well-established ones. I think we can all agree the love / hate relationship we have with TV/radio advertising, especially when we've heard the same message for the fourth time in a row. Ok! I’ll sign up to your premium service just to stop the ad. Damn, they got me.

One concept that could be agreed on, is that repetition can build ‘memory trace’ which unconsciously affects our consuming behaviour. No wonder I bought Softly toilet paper. Stop brainwashing me you cute little dog!

A conundrum

After writing about all of these methods, there is a part of me that feels conflicted. My conflict resides around the fact that we, as consumers, are prone to be easily manipulated into others agendas via a few simple tricks. Whilst this in itself isn't a new insight, it has become less visible in how our data is being captured and how that information is being used. 

As a result I feel it’s important to follow your instincts, challenge and do what ultimately feels right for you. Don’t take everything as gospel, instead understand the above techniques and use them to make an informed decision. Recently my wife and I went to JB HiFi. Of course our expectation was set at the low mark but I have to say we were taken back by how good the experience actually was. Being unsure between buying a Freeview box or a new TV, the salesman that we spoke to did not once try to sell us anything or push a particular brand. Instead he listened to us, understood the context which we were in, research mode, and filtered down the options in both categories. We were able to ask questions based on our needs, felt no pressure at all and actually kept talking to him. Whilst we walked away without purchasing anything, when we do, we know where we’re going back to and whom to ask for.

Doesn't this illustrate that being honest, transparent and going the extra mile in understanding the context of your users’ needs, wins out at the end of the day?

It’s a wrap!

So there we have it. I hope you've enjoyed our little foray into context and can see the opportunities it can provide.

The most important take away for me throughout this whole exercise is how context can be the catalyst to better serve our users. Context can provoke us to create ways to lessen the noise that surrounds us, make the digital landscape easier to navigate and digest and to re-enforce meaning moments within our experiences.

There is a tremendous focus on tools and especially technology but we can’t sidestep what really drives a user to act towards a desired goal and outcome. And that is motivation. It’s our job to set aside our agendas and help our users achieve what they are driving towards. Framing, expectations, Siri, Android, all the tools in the world aren't the answer. We first need to step back and look at building the right audience for our businesses. Understand thoroughly the needs of that audience, their culture and the context of their interactions before doing anything else.

Here’s to thinking human.