Context Design: Why deciding between the words “soccer” and “football” is a design problem.


Last month I wrote and published a case study about a popular on-screen graphic used in sports broadcasting, known as the score-bug. Since there are several design implications based on which sport are you designing for, I focused my design on my favorite sport: Football.

Now, if you’re an American reader, the word “football” probably makes you think in other concepts like “NFL” and “New England Patriots”. That’s fine, this is not a debate on how you should name a sport, and it’s fine that “football” refers to two different sports.

However, as I was writing my case study I started to realize the complexity behind this simple idiosyncratic difference. This in fact, one of the biggest problems in user experience design and design in general. Context is everything, but context is fragile and ambiguous.

As a matter of fact, let me explain you some of the contextual problems I faced while writing my case study.

Problem #1: Should I refer to this sport as “football” or “soccer”?

I’m a native spanish speaker. It feels awkward to call “soccer” what I have called all my life “fútbol”. Hmm. But I want this case study to be culturally friendly (that means not ignoring USA, the country where I live and where many of my friends live).
I should just briefly mention both words in my writing.

(…Ok. Maybe this is not a huge problem, but there is already some cognitive load going on by just taking this decision…)

Problem #2: Time to find some supporting material and resources. Should I find them by googling “football” or “soccer”?

Ok. Since I want a reliable and a considerable amount of information about this topic l, I’ll use “football” in my search query. It’s reasonable since many of those articles and resources for sure refer to the sport as “football”.

Searching “football” in Google.com

Wait what? That’s not the football that I’m looking for. Better check Google Images to see if they’re thinking in something else.

Searching “football” in Google.com Images.

Yep! Definitely not thinking about that…

Problem #3: Google just failed to provide me the right information. How would I find that information?

Hmm. So “football” returns -American Football- results. Maybe I should try to google “Football Soccer” instead.

Searching “football soccer” in Google.com

Ok. That’s better. But now I’m getting a bunch of results with the word soccer on it. I don’t want that. I want content that was written with the word “football” in mind.

Maybe I should try to change my Google location. That should work.

Searching “football” in Google.co.uk

Ok. That seems to work, but I would try Google Images just to be sure…

Searching “football” in Google.co.uk Images.

Ok. That’s better…

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The Wrong Context

If you went through the examples, now you can understand the weariness that comes from the wrong context. At a first thought, it seems to be a problem that’s coming from Google.

They should know my context and understand what I mean with “football”.

But even if Google was able to determine my intention, the whole context problem would still be there because Google can’t tell if the original content is referring to “football” as the sport with the black and white ball, or “football” as the sport with the egg shaped ball. (To be fair, they could, but this a problem with multiple layers of complexity).

Now, you may be thinking that this is just a language problem that can be fixed through an algorithm update. Well, sadly it’s not. I’m sure that Google language algorithms can globally determine if an article refers to one sport or the other. In fact, when I went to Google UK they already showed me what I was looking for. This is not the problem.

The problem is a design issue from both Google and the content creators. Google fails to put me in the right context because they fail to provide mechanisms to adjust my context. There’s no way I can tell Google what I actually mean, because they don’t let me passively hint my search with other inputs.

On the other hand, the content creators won’t let me find their content because they just use one of the terms (“football” or “soccer”) when they write their articles. This is a problem because of course I can’t find an article that talks about “football” if I’m searching for “soccer” and vice versa. (I know, this is an infinite circle of confusion).

The Endless Problem of Context

At this point you may be thinking, “Well, this certainly looks like a problem, but it seems to be only a particular language issue”….. Well, not really. While this problem exacerbates with this particular language issue, I will show you two other products that I use on a daily basis that fail to provide a solid contextual design.

Faulty Context Design 1: Amazon

I want to buy a posture corrector. I don’t know anything about posture correctors and I don’t really want to spend a lot of time deciding to buy this. Let’s buy it from Amazon.

Hmmm ok. There are several categories here. Let’s search through all the departments.

Ok. The first one is too bulky. I want something discrete and good. I’ll just sort it by average reviews…..

Wait what? I need to pick a department to sort? How the heck would I know which is the right department?….

…..Ahhhh. Just remembered that I can sort the current results from the left sidebar.

What? 4 stars & up is disabled? But I’m currently seeing two results with 4 full stars. This doesn’t make sense.

Maybe I need to click 3 stars & up. That should do the trick.

What? This is ridiculous… Now I’m just seeing two results and one is not even a posture brace.

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Besides the horrible user experience, there’s clearly a faulty context design here.

Amazon fails to understand the simplicity of my search. There’s no way I can tell Amazon that I only want to see the best posture brace they have based on their customer reviews, or at least there’s no way to do it in a simple way. They fail to understand my context.

To better understand this problem, here is a description of my context and a description of what it seems to be Amazon’s understanding of my context:

My context:

I want to buy the best posture corrector available, but I don’t even know where to look or start. I honestly don’t want to search a lot for this or waste time doing it. I just want the best thing available for a reasonable price. I’ll trust Amazon because they have a great stock of products and consumer reviews.

What they thought my context was: The user wants a specific type of product that underlies under an specific kind of category. He wants a lot of tools to make his decision based on price and reviews. He probably also wants to spend some time thinking about this so we will give him a rich environment to make his purchase decision.


Faulty Context Design 2: Netflix

I want to watch a soft and easy going movie. Something to relax myself. I don’t want to think too much about it. I’ll trust Netflix and their amazing selection to find something like that.

Netflix Main Navigation
Netflix Content Discovery. Protip: Make a cup of coffee before trying it.

Nevermind…

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Once again, as it happened with Amazon, Netflix also fails to understand my context. They have a serious problem of “noise” and also their content seems to remain unchanged through time. These two factors make the discovery process inefficient and frustrating.

Netflix fails to understand the context of users who rely on their service to replace the classic TV experience. Here is a description on how their interpretation of my context differs from my real context:

My context: I want to relax and watch something that is easy to follow and funny, but I don’t want to spend 2 hours searching for it.

What they thought my context was: The user wants a lot of options to choose from, so we would provide multiple dynamic categories and show our endless movie catalogue so he can appreciate all our titles.

Good Context Design

Before I explain what is a good contextual design I would like to clarify something. All the examples that I have provided so far have something in common. They are faulty because they can’t adapt to a simple and straight forward context. Please don’t be confused with this. Good context design should help users regardless the complexity of their context.

With that being said, good context design shouldn’t be difficult to implement or integrate in your design process. To create context oriented designs you should be aware about the multiple use cases of your service and understand how to address those cases without modifying the core of your experience. This means, providing small modes that give your user the possibility to tailor their experiences and find flexible ways to use your service.

Take for instance MyFitnessPal, the famous calorie tracker app acquired by Under Armour. This amazing app is a perfect example of how small design decisions can help a service to address multiple use cases for a wide range of users.

Here are some of those small features:

1.Calorie Tracking is not only relevant for those that are trying to lose weight.

MyFitnessPal is flexible enough to let you set other weight management goals. Not everyone is on a weight loss diet.

Multiple user states that work on with a single calorie tracking system.

2. If you just had some kind of food like a bag of chips and you know how many calories was that (by looking at the label), MyFitnessPal gives you the possibility to add those calories through a “Quick Add Calories” option, no search query involved.

Alternatively you can also use your your camera and scan the barcode of the product you just ate.

Multiple input methods that adapt to multiple user contexts.

3. Searching for a new food to add? MyFitnessPal provides you a native suggestion system that provides only food related words.

Clever enough to understand that if you typed “Pap”, you’re probably searching for “Paprika”, “Papaya” or “Papa” (Potato) instead of “Paper” or “Paparazzi”.

Predictive systems that simplify typing and navigation.

4. Do you need to annotate something about an activity? MyFitnessPal gives you a note system to record additional details about your food or exercise.

Flexible annotation systems to extend the usability of the app and address specific use cases that are not being addressed by the general design.

MyFitnessPal is a great example of a design that adapts to multiple users and anticipates different contexts. It works amazingly well in different situations and it serves multiple users regardless their level of involvement. The app can work as a simple calorie counter, but it’s flexible enough to be a fitness hub that integrates with wearables and other services.

Final Thoughts

As you can see context design problems are everywhere and they are not easy to solve because of context’s fragility and ambiguity. However, as designers we should always think about context design and provide alternative ways to change and tailor our experiences depending on the user specific needs and situations.

Good context design can enable product versatility and extensibility. Products with good context design are able to reach wider audiences and serve them in a better way.

Good context design reveals hidden opportunities because it allows us to understand and articulate unclear usage patterns.

Last, but not least, good context design is a better way to build new features for our products because it enables a thoughtful framework that anticipates user needs and problems.
Current design patterns fail at this because they are based on the idea of rebuilding the current product to address failures and introduce improvements, instead of addressing those issues with alternative contexts.

Good context design should be the basis of any design solution. Either you understand your users’ context or your don’t. The former usually would lead you to a path of real solutions, the latter usually leads to a path of inexistent problems…

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