Summary: Understanding the difference between ease of use and context of use is one of the most important UX distinctions. Context of use focuses on where, when, how and why users are performing a task, reaching a goal or using your product or service. Ease of use focuses on helping users get through the interface when they are actually using it. Ease of use is more widely understood, but context of use is far more important to master in your UX strategy.
Function follows context
Ease of use maps directly to usability, a key product goal. It's the most basic idea behind good user experience: Can the user interact easily with the UI and complete their task effortlessly? It is easily understood that ease of use aims to reduce complexity, but rarely do we dig deeper to understand what is going on around the act of use.
To create differentiated user experience (from your competitor, or the previous version of your product or service), designers have to understand context-of-use requirements with key questions such as these:
- Where is usage happening? (physically, environmentally, device-specific)
- What is happening with the user when they are using it? (social or emotional influences)
- What is physically or socially preventing users from completing their tasks? (e.g. another party or person has to act first)
- When does usage happen and what triggers it? (timing and coordination)
- What expectations do users bring to the task? (mental model)
- Why do users want to do this before that? (workflow, motivation, flow)
- What makes sense to users and why does that differ from how you think about it? (content, labeling, problem-solving)
In short, context first, function next. This means you need to be doing contextual interviews, user visits, observations and soaking up some empathy criteria. Remember, when we say "User Research" in the UX field, only half of that is user testing or focused on ease-of-use.
Why is ease of use more widely understood?
Somewhere along the way, ease of use got evangelized over context of use.
We have a tendency to jump straight to making things easy (on paper, screen or whiteboard). Rarely do we saturate our understanding with the context of how a user interacts with the task we are making easy.
Contextual interviews, also known as Field Studies, are less understood and valued typically. UX people recognize the value, but even many UX designers rarely get to practice this other half of User Research. Both are equally important, the key is that both need to be captured and designed for, with context coming first, and ease of use following. This is the key point, and this is what you need to explain to your boss!
Where ease of use gives designers constraints to design under, e.g. "Make this button really big"; context tells designers how best to approach the design problem, e.g. "Let's prioritize X over Y, since users don't care about Z...based on what we've seen and heard in field studies".
Context holds the key to differentiated user experience
Context frames all experience. If you didn't understand the user will be using your app mostly on mobile, but designed for desktop, ease of use wouldn't save you. If you didn't know your users expect to see something you buried under another screen or area of your app, it wouldn't matter if the user interaction was easy.
Context sets the expectation, spoken and unspoken for user interaction. Context of use means understanding the where, when, how and why of feature usage and user experience.
Here are a few real examples to illustrate context of use requirements gathered from UX projects at Experience Dynamics:
- At a medical billing office, we observed stacks of bills on a user's desk. "I don't want these digitized or on an iPad...I want to see which ones I have done and then keep a copy for auditing purposes".
- For a mobile app aimed at students, users wanted a secret or parallel communication channel or codewords that parents would not detect. One user reminded us, “That’s why teens use SnapChat, to keep communication discreet and private”.
- In a restaurant, the manager wanted a large summary of end-of-day earnings she could glance at from a 5-foot distance, while walking past the display in near dark conditions, during store closing.
How to clearly communicate this key UX distinction
It is important to bring to the surface the difference between context and ease. Context is where and how you drive your user to the feature or touchpoint; ease is what happens once they are there. Think of context as that wrapper to the experience that determines how you position your features and functionality.
Try these field-tested educational arguments to make stakeholders smarter, without even mentioning context:
1. "We need to define how our users frame their problems before making it easy to use".
2. "We can make it easy, but that won't matter if we miss out on what is shaping the experience around this feature".
3. "We need to understand how they currently solve their problems then make that easy to use".
4 . "Getting into our user's natural setting will give us validation as to right features for the right personas".
5. "We're automating easy, but we don't know that much about what our users are actually doing (when/where/how/why)..."
The key points that bosses need to know include:
- Ease of use priorities often overlook context of use.
- Ease of use follows a thoroughly understood Context of use inquiry.
- Context insights help strategically define UX/UI requirements lowering risk and cost of performing iterative user testing.
- User testing is 50% of "User Research", the other half is or ought to include Field Studies (AKA Contextual Inquiry, Ethnography).
- First Context, then Ease.
- Before making it easy, saturate understanding in context and usage scenarios.