Designers: Don’t Forget About Context

I scribbled context in the margins, for what seemed like the umpteenth time. I was reading Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, a design classic.

I’m a big fan of taking notes as I read (nerd alert). I’ll write down my thoughts and key phrases to help me understand the essence of the author’s message.

So I kept writing context in Norman’s book. Why is context so important in design and how can we effectively understand it?

The Case for Context

First, I’ll unpack the case for considering context. What I propose is nothing particularly revolutionary, but nonetheless of utmost importance: you need to understand the circumstances that surround your product in order to effectively design it.

What does the scene look like where your product is being used? Are your users in the comfort of their own homes or out on the streets? In a rush or taking their time? Starved or well fed?

Let’s take a look at the context of Uber users, for example. What’s the scene? You’re typically in a city, trying to get somewhere as efficiently as possible. You know, you’re antsy to get to Johnny’s pregame.

The design of the Uber app reflects this: you’ll only have to press a few buttons to get your ride. When it comes, you’ll understand at exactly what time you’re going to make it to Johnny’s pregame.

There are a couple of ways to paint a picture of context. At first, it might be easy and practical to visualize and imagine the experience of your users.

Taking a peek into my routine for packing for a trip might help illustrate my point.

When I’m packing, I always visualize the various activities I’m going to do when I’m on the trip. Let’s say I’m going on a skiing trip. I’ll imagine getting to the mountain. I’ll imagine shredding some pow. I’ll imagine kicking back at après. I’ll imagine getting into the hot tub…

For each of these situations, I’ll carefully visualize each step of preparing for these activities as I would while I’m on the trip. Whatever comes to mind, I’ll pack it up.

Sometimes I get a little excited. I’ll think, “Yea, I totally need three pairs of gloves. Who knows what the temperature might be!”

I can use my imagination to think of things that I might not necessarily need, but would be happy to have. Think of Uber’s map function. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice to see exactly where your driver is. After all, Johnny’s waiting.

Get Creative

Getting into the imaginative mind-set might be difficult for most. Thankfully, there’s something we can do about that.

Divergent thinking is “a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions” (thanks, Wikipedia). Divergent thinking is a mind-set, best achieved by ceasing to censor your ideas and letting out your inner five-year-old.

Consider the divergent thinking exercise I did in college: think of as many different uses for a brick as you can in a minute. On the surface, this seems simple. But remember, we are five-year-olds without censorship. So, answers like “well if the brick is massive and hollow it could be a swimming pool” or “the brick could be a pet” are totally acceptable.

Being creative is something that is built over time. Divergent thinking is just one of many exercises that work your creative muscles. If you’re looking to break a creative sweat, try doodling, changing your daily routine or cooking. I could go on and on about learning creativity, but I’ll save that for another post.


Although a great start, visualization and imagination have their shortcomings. Let’s consider again my packing situation. Since I’m not actually on the trip, I might not be clued into the fact that the place I’m staying doesn’t have towels. That would make for a very unpleasant scene when I hop out of the hot tub.

Therefore, we need a back-up plan. It is not enough to merely fantasize about your users’ ideal experience; you must also observe them in action.

Is there really an art to observing your users? Don’t you just show up at a lab, notepad in hand, standing on the other side of a two-way mirror and nod your head while occasionally writing a note or two?

Sure, controlled environments are useful in some cases. But the ideal scenario is observing your users in the place where your product will be used.

Consider the brilliance of one Urban Outfitters study. Instead of issuing customer surveys, managers simply observed a typical day at the store. They saw all kinds of interesting stuff: certain products that weren’t even getting a second look, poorly designed displays, inattentive staff.

As we know, Urban Outfitters is a success story. This may in part be attributable to the insight they generated from seeing their customers in action — in context, if you will. It is important to note that people are often unable to explain why they did a certain thing. Most of our thinking is subconscious. This is why observation, as opposed to surveys, is so powerful.


Now, class, what did we learn today? Considering the context in which your product is used is important. You can imagine the ideal scenario by getting into a creative mind-set and visualizing it. As a supplement to this exercise, get out there and observe your users in the places they’ll be using the product.

Happy designing!

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My name is Spencer Ivey and I’m pursuing a career in UX Design. Here’s my personal website:

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