Designing with Context in Mind

Jordan Girman
Aug 23 · 7 min read

In April of 2016, Glassdoor hit a major milestone in not only our growth but in how users are interacting with our platform. For the first time, mobile users outnumbered desktop users. We have been watching this trend for a few years and we knew it was going to happen. It actually happening is a catalyst for how we are approaching design and communicating our users to the wider product team. Today over 60% of sessions are on a mobile device and we are now looking at the context of the Job Seeker to drive key user experience decisions throughout the whole product design process.

This article will discuss how we approaching context in definition and process in an attempt to change from a desktop first, to a mobile/Context first product team.

So How Were We Designing?

Let’s start with how most companies review a design, using bank machines as an example. Below is a representation of how a bank machine UI is displayed to the stakeholders in a normal critique:

How that interface actually manifests in the real world is a lot more complicated than what is shown above. There is location and the bank machine itself. The context of the physical reality radically changes the above user experience. In most situations, when reviewing with stakeholders, we as designers provide the ideal situation to interact with this product — in this case, well-lit areas that are idealistic in showcasing and highlighting the product itself. Example of this interaction is shown below:

The actual experience is this however:

As you can see, there is a very big disconnect between how we represent the experience of using a bank machine to the stakeholders and the actual experience of using a bank machine. Wait lines, emotional states and lighting radically change in the field when compared to how the product is showcased in design.

So What Is Context?

In the early days of developing product for the internet, context was very fixed. You were sitting in front of a computer screen that was plugged into a wall and the amount of outside influence to the experience you were creating was minimal. Once mobile technology came into play, though, this began to change.

Access to the internet started to show up outside of the desktop, and bank machines are an example of this. Today, when you look at a typical person’s daily schedule, the internet is with them every step of the way. Most people are awoken by their phone alarm and immediately check social media. From there, they interact with a myriad of connected devices from toothbrushes and scales that connect to an app to app-controlled coffee mugs that keep your coffee at certain temperature. Once they get in their car, they listen to Spotify or a podcast, and the car itself might have wifi. At work, they are constantly connected, from cloud documents to emails and Slack. Upon arriving at home, Netflix is in the background as they look up recipes on tablets and use

Alexa or Google Home to set timers or listen to the news. Essentially, the experience of all of these interactions are radically different depending on the context of the user, whether it’s location, time of day or state of mind.

Because of the transition to mobile devices, context — how, when and where our products are used — becomes more important to successful user experience. So how are we approaching designing product now?

For starters, everyone has to understand that context is not just time and place anymore. Let’s go back to the bank machine example:

Used Adaptive Path’s Experience Maps as a framework

In this example, we are using Adaptive Path’s breakdown from their Experience Mapping Guide. Here are all the parts that we look at when we refer to context:

  • Location: Home or couch, action vs stationary, noise and distractions
  • Device: Phone vs. screen, touch vs. tactile, other inputs (voice or motion)
  • Comfort Level: Sitting on a couch vs. standing on a train
  • Emotional State: Stress levels and temperament
  • Time: How much do they have, and are they willing to give more?
  • People who influence the user: We are all influenced by a huge number of sources that include family, friends and social networks. Not just personal connections but reviews, celebrities and mavens within particular circumstances

If you look closely at the above image, you can see a few things that might be affecting the user’s experience. First, she is putting her card in backwards, which might add to frustration or confusion. The state of the device is in question, and you can see that she is not looking at her card but at the screen where there is a lot of ‘stuff.’ She might be thinking that she can’t hit the buttons because they are gross. What is she hearing while she is using the product? She appears to be outside. Is this changing how she is thinking? Is there a queue behind her adding pressure? Does she feel safe? Is there enough in her account for a withdrawal?

All of these factors add to how she is feeling. The reality of the experience is radically influenced by more than just the interaction that was designed. To showcase our users and interject their context in our design, we start with research. There are many ways to learn about your users, from qualitative to quantitative or attitudinal to behavioral, and we used a variety of studies to get to a place where we have narrowed down our ‘job seekers’ to four different profiles:

Each of these job seekers are discussed in terms of their particular context. Insecure, for example, is someone who has just lost or is about to lose their job. The way that they might search for their next role might be very different from the growth job seeker who is looking to advance their career and the ‘right’ next role. Because of their context, the way they interact with our product is different. Their emotional journey is mapped out so that we can understand what they are interacting with and how they are fulfilling their goals and motivations.

This is all part of a normal product development cycle where we understand the problem and who we are solving for in a discovery phase then we design for that user and prototype. From there, it’s about testing and evaluating against those users and then iterating to ensure any learnings are accommodated. Really, our process is no different than most companies out there.

What is different is how we are evaluating those design against the context discussed previously. To do this, we start with device (desktop or mobile, android or iOS, etc.) and then look at the location of that device and relative comfort of the user (are they on a train to work? Are they sitting on a couch at home or sitting in a desk?) it will be interacting with. That is the base layer. From there, we move to emotional state and time of the interaction. And finally, we look at how the user was influenced into this interaction. Did they arrive by SEO, or are they logged in and returning? Did they indicate how they discovered Glassdoor during on-boarding or filling out their profile?

This is the framework that we are teaching stakeholders to evaluate our product with. By including these evaluations into our feedback process we are ensure Context of the user is taken into account and that our experience regardless of device is successful.

So here we are, back to where we started. The image above is us in a design review for one of our mobile experiences. As you can see, there is no context displayed in the interaction, but we are much more confident because context has all been taken into account and the stakeholders are asking the right questions to make sure that designers, engineers and PMs are held accountable for the context of the user because of the research and framework we have developed.

Glassdoor Design

Perspectives from the Glassdoor Design team.

Jordan Girman

Written by

Head of Product Design at Glassdoor. I make boxes and arrows for digital strategies. Follow me at @moonwaffle or

Glassdoor Design

Perspectives from the Glassdoor Design team.

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