Putting Responsive Design In Context

Most web experiences today are designed to be responsive, scaling to optimize content from desktop to mobile. This approach is a way of taking into consideration the context of the user’s device, and it’s a good start. But a more comprehensive context awareness, an evaluation that considers not only the device but the full context of the user, can give us so much more: we can work from a truer-than-ever-before user reality, which affords us many more opportunities to reach that person in ways that are more useful and a whole lot more meaningful.

Everything is context

For starters, context awareness allows us to serve up content that adapts to a user’s goal, attitude and basic local data inputs like geolocation, time and weather. You see this in a ton of apps from fitness to health care to Yelp and Uber, in the voice automation of Siri, and in so much of what Google does, from Maps to Now. If social sign-ins are in play, then even more information (relationship status, job, connections, etc.) can be used to target content.

But it’s not just content: context awareness can also be used to help guide user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) by adapting the experience’s design, navigation, search capabilities, even brightness and color — all based on a user’s location and what they’re doing.

All this matters even more with the increased prevalence of technology like Apple’s M7 and M8 co-processors, which track a user’s motion (are they walking, jogging, driving, flying, sleeping?) and technologies like iBeacon, an indoor positioning system often used in retail that can help determine location and context. Add to that advances in wearable computing and the rise of the IoT, and there are simply too many opportunities to ignore.

Strategic execution

Many brands are already taking advantage of this, of course, especially huge names like Amazon, Google, and Facebook through things like targeted ads, recommendations and search optimization. Amazon has even realized that computers can’t provide all the necessary context; they employ thousands of living, breathing people all over the world to help curate their you-might-also-likes. (Check out the Planet Money podcast “The People Inside Your Machine”…)

This human element is key, and it reflects the kind of strategic thinking that brands need if they’re going to deepen their connection with customers.

Still, for brands that lack the vast resources of a mammoth company like Amazon, it can be overwhelming to figure out how to take advantage of all this, and whether it’s even worth it.

The short answer is that it is most definitely worth it. Companies of every size, and in many different industries, stand to gain. The rewards greatly outweigh the risks. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be smart about the execution.

One risk is in over-engineering an experience. Context awareness may provide us with deep and valuable insights, but if we try to control the experience too tightly, we risk forcing users down a single path, or blocking them out entirely. We also need to make sure none of the personalization negatively affects the experience’s performance, compatibility, scalability, or its ability to be maintained over the long term.

Another risk is security. As brands work with more and more of the data that context awareness offers them, it’s imperative that privacy concerns and security be part of the conversation. Understanding where the balance lies with your customers from the get-go is vital if you don’t want to make people uneasy — something Facebook and Apple have found out the hard way.

Rethinking “responsive”

As with anything, there’s a balance to be struck and trade-offs to be considered. But the rewards of context awareness are far too great for brands to ignore. New technology is giving us the opportunity to engage with audiences on a more personal level, and in more useful and meaningful ways.

We need to start thinking differently about what it takes for brands to deliver the most value to customers. In doing so, we can continually expand what “responsiveness” means in order to help brands understand just what’s possible.

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Jonathon Hensley is CEO at Emerge Interactive, a digital innovation company, where he works with clients to transform business strategies, user needs and new technologies into valuable products and experiences.