Want to make useful things? Understand context

Designers aim to help build experiences that work well and serve a purpose, it’s obvious then that understanding the context of how, when and why a product is being used is super important.

The good news is that it isn’t hard to do, it just means you need to get out of the office, observe and ask questions. The more you do it the better you become at understanding and turning what you discover into actionable insights.

So many projects I’ve been involved in claim to have had a contextual inquiry stage of research but the insights are barely skin deep. Understanding what someone is trying to do is important but you have to ask more questions to get a holistic view.

  • Where are they likely to be at the moment they’re using this product?
  • Are they on the move?
  • Maybe their crappy 3g connection keeps dropping out?
  • What is the current workaround to get that job done now?

To show why asking these questions is important, here’s three small things I’ve personally come across which made me appreciate that someone involved in making the product took the time to understand how I might use it.

OVO Energy’s torch

Submitting meter readings when you live in a block of flats often means trying to find your way around a dark cupboard under the stairs. Understanding this meant that OVO added a handy “torch on” button when submitting meter readings.

Submit a meter reading with OVO energy’s app
Switching on torch whilst trying to read the meter

Google’s Primer app

Primer is an awesome app to learn marketing in bite-sized chunks. It’s one of the few apps I can rely on during tube journeys. The content is designed to be bite sized, can be navigated with just one thumb (handy when you are squashed up against someone’s armpit on the central line) and each lesson takes 5–7 mins so you are confident to start a lesson knowing you’ll finish it before you have to get off the train.

Using Google Primer one handed

Booking.com’s app offline features

(Have to thank Andrea for this one) Booking.com took the time to understand that people don’t always have data when they travel (thanks crappy networks and extortionate hotel wifi). So they let you download city guides, maps and tourist advice all available offline, handy when you are out and about in a exploring.

Booking.com travel guides work offline
Offline travel guides
Paris travel guide

Those are just three examples of where understanding context clearly helped shape the product and determine what would be useful to people. Understanding context can make or break a product so allowing yourself the time to do this is vital if you want to make stuff that people love.

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