What is Context in Design?
“A central tenet of Contextual Design is that any technology, product or system must be designed to support and extend its users’ work practice . If it does so well, it will be accepted and valued; if it fails to do so, it will cause dissatisfaction, frustration, avoidance and workarounds” — Encyclopedia of Human Interaction.
By definition, the noun context refers to the circumstances that form the setting for an event or an idea.
The origins of this word come from the Latin word ‘contexere’ which means to join together by weaving.
We use context often in design. It’s invisible and immediately communicates intention without needing an explanation.
For example, the raindrops in the following apps are enough to communicate that it is raining without having to necessarily read everything.
Contextualism in Architecture
Contextualism in architecture is a principle of design in which specific urban and natural environments inform the design of a structure.
The two main determinants to the context of a building are:
The Physical/Natural Factors:
This refers to actual physical features such as the bend in a river, the height of a mountain or the shape of a tree
The Socio-Cultural Factors:
This could refer to the the site’s previous use or the current community and its people.
By analyzing, adapting and adopting factors of the environment, an architect can validate a building’s purpose.
The Challenge of Augmented Reality
Now what if an architect was given the task of designing for an unknown environment that could be anything- from a desert, a cliffside or a jungle? How would they be expected to create the best space possible without any understanding of the actual space?
That is the predicament of spatial computing. Spatial computing is a term that encompasses Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and other mediums that involve being immersed digitally in space.
Designing for spatial computing comes with the reality that we have no control over where a person using the device will be. This is challenging because if we want our experiences to be engaging, our content has to adapt to a new environment each time and therefore we can no longer design with just a single environment in mind.
Current AR experiences on mobile often requires the user to define their space before they can get started. This adds a layer of friction since the content does not automatically adapt to the users surroundings, instead, it tasks the user with accommodating for the content.
The good news is that we already design to adapt to our environment in some capacity. Take, for example, responsive web design. We define queries and conditions for a website so that it can anticipate any screen size.
Spatial computing requires this thoughtfulness, but for the real world.
Weaving The Real World with The Digital World
Regardless of the ambiguity we face in spatial computing, we will always have one vital piece of information, and that is knowing who our users are and what their needs and expectations are.
If we want to design meaningful experiences, we must understand and define what a computer sees and how it interprets that data back to our users.
This means authoring context that is responsive and smart enough to understand the world around us.
For example, if our experience involves generating a prompt on a chair, there are many factors to consider. The first being our innate ability to find affordances around us in the world that manifest into what we consider a chair.
A ‘stump’ is as much a chair as a ‘throne’, they both enable the possibility of seating.
We also have to overcome computer bias which is inherent in the technology present that captures and interprets data.
How to Best Define Context
In order to optimize for what is ideal for our user, we have to clearly define the context to the best of our ability. We can do so by defining the following factors with as much detail as we see fit.
The more thoughtful the context, the better we can make them work in any environment regardless of where in the world that may be. This in turn, really extends the value of our designs. This is also true immersion because it adapts contextually and responsively to the space around the user.
By being contextual and responsive, things feel more intuitive to the user.
Tools for Authoring Context in Spatial Computing
At Unity we are solving this exact problem with Project MARS. Project MARS is an authoring tool that lets users design spatial computing experiences using context.
The author can create a context that will then read data from the real world through an AR enabled device (such as a phone or a headset) and interpret it into something desirable.
Project MARS also makes, what would otherwise take significant time and effort, a lot simpler by transforming it into easy to use visual tools. This creates less mental overhead when embracing a new type of context-first authoring.
Project MARS is currently in closed alpha, but we are looking for dedicated teams to partner with who are trying to push the bounds of spatial applications. Learn more about Project MARS here.
Technology moves fast and with more data available to us now than ever before, contextual design will help make it meaningful. After all, it is our responsibility as creatives to help lead new technology forward through thoughtful design.
Interested in reading more about how things work, read Designers Guide to Hardware and Software for AR.