Context Driven Design

Image courtesy of SomeDriftwood

For the third time in just a matter of hours I tore the headphones from my ears. Spotify had just served me another advert for a hardcore metal band. My musical interests are the polar opposite of hardcore metal. Spotify know this because they have my entire listening history in their hands. If they took my listening history into account when deciding which ads they play me, I’ll want to click on them to discover new music.

We’re all here to make our users’ lives easier. They use our products to solve their pain points. It’s great to get that right but imagine if we could provide a tailored experience to each user. We call this approach Context Driven Design. It’s a way of building a level of sophistication into our products and services to learn what users need from us.

Even subtle changes will make you stand out as more useful than your competition. Google change their results filter based on your search.

If I search for Birmingham, the menu order changes and puts the Maps tab at the front. Birmingham is a place, there’s a strong chance that I have geography in mind as I search.

If I search for the the band Snarky Puppy then I may want to watch the music videos or see the album artwork. The page promotes the Video sections.

A search for David Cameron directs me to News results as current affairs seem most appropriate.

Most users won’t even notice these changes, but there’s definitely a sense that Google know precisely what I want.

Mark Zuckerberg was recently asked in a town hall meeting if there would ever be something more than the Like button to express feelings about the posts we see. There are times when a “Like” button is inappropriate. People want to agree or express support for a post but “liking” doesn’t seem right. Since then we’ve started to see the introduction of the “Reactions” button.

I’m disappointed with the way this has been implemented. It’s taken away from the singular method in which express your opinion with the status. No longer do you just “Like” a status; you can express 1 of 7 emotions.

But Facebook have already demonstrated skill at determining the emotion of a status. It seems a small step to create a set of verbs suitable for different contexts. Statuses with positive sentiment could provide a “Like” button whilst statuses about bereavement could provide a “Sorry For Your Loss” button. It’s a dramatic addition to the site, but Facebook are in a perfect position to use Context Driven Design to make our interactions more natural.

Apple’s Watch has been available from early 2015. It’s designed to enhance the experience of the iPhone by giving users another screen to use their apps. We live in a world with so many stimuli and distractions that I don’t want my watch to buzz every few minutes. I want it to know what’s important to me, and what can wait.

For example, I, personally, will never read an email on my watch. The screen is too small for the the way I communicate over email. I’ll need my phone to reply anyway. If I never interact with the Mailbox notification on the watch then don’t bother pushing the notification to my watch. On the other hand, I’ll want the football scores to come through to my watch so I can keep up with the game while I’m with friends. If I always open the Sky Sports notification on my watch then don’t bother pushing it to my phone.

Of course, no one expects people to sit and manually create preferences for each notification and each app. I bet that the way I reacted to the first few Twitter notifications made it clear whether I mind them interrupting me. The watch should react to my behaviour.

It’s easy for Apple to put these sort of features in place; they have end-to-end control of the devices. That doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t use this approach.

Consider a hotel site. If a user is browsing a hotel site on their desktop at home then there’s a strong chance they want to find a room for their next trip. Let’s assume they linger on the Berlin destination page and then book a room.

When that user visits the site on their phone whilst in Berlin then the site should push the upcoming events front and centre. They won’t want to book another room yet, but they’ll be more likely to come back to you when they do because you’ve helped them. You’ve made their life easier and they’ll remember you because of it.

The way people behave using your product should shape the way the product behaves. Apps should be sensitive to a user’s needs and adapt to the current context.

Does this mean we need to bring a team of sociologists on board for each new product? Do we need to determine all use cases before we put pen to paper? We’ve found that, if we use a Build-Measure-Learn approach for each product cycle, we can allow the design to be shaped organically. Once a product is launched, look to iterate by adding new features and tweaking existing features based on measured behaviour.