Content is key but context is King: exploring a new format for user stories in Agile.
On the first day of 2018, I visited the Vitra campus, where the factories and famous design museum of the same-titled company are located. Vitra is a Swiss furniture and lighting company and the manufacturer for many internationally renowned furniture designers. Coming from an industrial design background, I found the furniture and lighting collections of the museum fascinating. From Charles & Ray Eames’, Panton and Thonet, to Rietveld and Marcel Wanders — both classic and modern iconic chairs under one roof.
The highlight of my visit was the architectural tour, visiting the unique architectural ensemble on campus. In fact, Vitra has put significant effort into collaborating with illustrious architects such as Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Nicholas Grimshaw and Zaha Hadid, to design structures on the factory site. The company has commissioned Frank Gehry’s first ever European work, before his creations of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Neuer Zollhof in Düsseldorf.
Bought at an auction, a Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic dome designed by Thomas C. Howard was placed on the campus. They subsequently convinced Japanese architect Tadao Ando, with quite distinctive non-European style, to design the “concentration” pavillion for them. Rumour has it that, to persuade the architect to design a building for them, Vitra has not only provided complete freedom for his choice of style but also made sure to invite him to the site when the campus was full of cherry blossoms; something which carries great traditional significance in Japan. A touching gesture that is close to the heart, eh?
The buildings in the architectural park are celebrations of the company’s innovative and design-led image. You see, one could wonder why Vitra, a furniture company by nature, would be so interested in investing in architecture? The explanation lies in Vitra’s formula of ‘furniture — human — space’. When designing a piece of furniture, it is essential not only to see how users interact with it, but also the space in which this interaction occurs. In order to create the right atmosphere, it’s important to consider all aspects of this formula, and hence the importance of great architecture for a furniture company.
“Device — human — context”
In the context of app design and development, the analogy of this formula would be ‘device — human — context’.
“For mobile computing, context is everything”
Initially, digital product design and development mainly embraced usage in a static environment, powered by the medium of desktop computing. However, as the medium changed from a static computer towards an omnipresent mobile (or even wearables), the interactions and requirements for interface design alongside the context of use of the device changed. At the HCII 2017 conference I attended last year, a talk by Ger Joyce really nailed the importance of ‘context-of-use’ for mobile interactions when in comparison to the desktop-computing era. Joyce et al. discuss in their paper, “Context-of-use, which is anything that might impact the interaction between a user and an application, is a vital component of building mobile experiences. This is due to the ever-changing contexts-of-use that mobile users find themselves in.”
In the realm of Human-Centered Design, this is already achieved with a number of methods and approaches when considering the context of the user when designing a new product. In fact, Joyce et al. conducted a survey among HCI practitioners to rank the methods, which consider context-of use, used when designing and evaluating mobile apps. It’s especially important and known to conduct field studies (in addition to in-lab only) to be able to take into account the surroundings, environment and context of the product being evaluated.
Based on his research, Joyce has developed an approach to evaluate products, under a model called Contextual Usability Evaluation (CLUE). (CLUE) USER STORY would have a format of “When <task>, does <context> have an impact on <usability>?”
Examples of CLUEs could be, as considering when checking the news, whether taking public transport have an impact on readability; or when changing songs, does jogging or walking on a street have an impact on the ability to use Spotify with frequent distractions?
A place for a context in Agile user stories
While this model focuses mainly on the evaluation process of mobile software, the same attention paid when considering the context of use, by the user, should be applied to the design and development process. In fact, while the topic of context-of-use is being widely researched in software-evaluation and human-centered design practices, the role of context is yet to be formally emphasised in Agile development. Generally, in an Agile context, we create user stories to capture a description of a software feature which we’re then going to develop. The user story describes the kind of user that will use the feature, what feature they want, and why they want it. These are created in the format of “As an <role>, I want <feature> so that <benefit>”. The user stories, being the building blocks of a product design and development process, consider the ‘device-human’ part of the interaction, while actually completely missing the ‘context’ part of the formula. It’s as if we’re considering the human-furniture interaction with no consideration for the space this pair lies in. I for one would vouch for re-naming the terminology from a ‘user story’ to a ‘user context story’.
Moreover, I would go even further and give context-of-use a prominent position in the Agile, amending the format of user stories to be “As a <role>, I want <feature> in the <context>, so that <benefit>”.
There are immense amounts of examples to support this new format. Considering for context has been proven useful in so many of our experiences. In other words, the lack for context consideration seems to result in cases of bugs and usability issues that could have been prevented. I believe this is because the ‘context’ was fundamentally missing from the formula. An example that comes to mind is when launching the beta testing phase of an app we had developed — we received feedback from users that stated: if the user launched our app while listening to Spotify, the video in our walkthrough would pause Spotify and never resumes after the video has finished. Did the user story state that the app should pause the parallel-played music and resume it upon ending the video? Nope. All that can be concluded from the user story was that the user would want to be introduced the functionalities of the app, so that s/he can use it conveniently. Whether the user was listening to Spotify, dodging a serious discussion at a dinner table, standing in queue for checkout, or sitting on a toilet — these are not accommodated by the existing format of user stories.
When developing new products or features, it is essential to not only place yourself in your user’s footwear, but also put yourself in their chair. While the functionality of the chair is to provide support for a seated person; the shape, size, colour and all other features are entirely dependent on the desired use, decided by the sitter. Is it a chair to collapse on after a long day? Is it a chair to provide stability and adequate back support for the posture of the sitter throughout the whole day? Is it a lounge chair to enjoy sitting on while sipping a drink? Or, is it a chair that needs to support the user at various angles, like a dentist or hairdressing chair?
Similarly, software feature designers need to encompass the context where this feature is meant to be used, by the user, to achieve the full potential.
We, as usability experts, along with quality assurance specialists are responsible for designing and testing a product in all potential contexts of use. Business stakeholders need to make decisions to invest the time and effort to develop solutions that will accommodate for the context-of-use. From my perspective of a UXer, there is no risk when putting all my eggs into the context basket. You will not lose by investing in designing features and products with context in mind. I know that Vitra didn’t.