As designers, when we think of ‘context’, we usually think of location, as in where someone is when they are doing something. Are they at their desk or walking to an appointment? While location matters, it’s not the only facet of context that informs pragmatic design.
A holistic contextual picture can answer why the product we are designing should even exist, where it fits in the world, and why people would use it. Context extends beyond end users and into the product development phase as well. In fact, context is probably the most important consideration at every phase of the product lifecycle. It provides constraints and opportunities to design towards a specific goal armed with knowledge about how that goal might be achieved. Without an understanding of the context of users, the business, and available technology, a product is likely to fail. (1)
Most importantly, we need to understand the user, their environment, and their situation(s).
“Who is this product for? Why will they use this product, and what goal will it help them achieve? What will they be doing when using this product?”
Asking such questions opens a line of inquiry that provides an understanding of who the users might be, what they do, and how we might be able to talk to them in the future. As a user experience designer, the user is clearly my first focus. Understanding real users in real contexts makes it possible to be a true advocate for them — which becomes more important as we widen the contexts of consideration for the product. (2)
The next area of focus is on the project or product itself, which tends to be more focused on the business side of things.
“Who is the client, and what is their experience? What are their business goals? What resources do we have available? Who are they selling this to, and are they the end users?”
Asking these questions helps to understand expectations and constraints we might encounter in the design process due to resources and business goals. By providing context to the project scope, we have a clearer understanding of how the product we are designing fits into the stakeholder’s perspective. (3)
Lastly, there’s the technological and development context of the product.
“What technology is available to us? Is the product technically conceivable given the resources? How developmentally time consuming is a specific feature?”
This particular context usually is the most constraining. The engineering side of the product is in many cases the most expensive and time consuming aspect as it’s the heart of any product. As designers, we must consider the cost and benefit of different designs from a technical perspective to meet the requirements of any project. It’s very easy to wave your hands and imagine that anything is possible; it’s much more difficult to distill a grand design into achievable chunks while keeping all stakeholders happy.
There are an infinite number of contexts we can consider when designing a product. We don’t need to understand the whole world in which the product lives, but we do need to understand several degrees surrounding its use. Acting as a flashlight on a snapshot of the world, context matters — so that we successfully design a product that seamlessly fits into a particular part of that world.