Understanding Context of Use- possibly the most important thing you do in UX

Summary: Understanding and designing for context of use is vital to any successful UX project. By going beyond surface context, you find in-depth insights that take UX Designers beyond “throw-away” UX Design. Context is critical to developing products built to last and to be adopted long-term. 

In this post, we discussed the topic of understanding Tasks and Context. Context of use also called the ‘problem space’ instead of the solution space, is where tasks are translated into UI solutions. Context of use helps you understand where, how, why, when, and under what conditions (environmental, physical, social, emotional) your product, service, or interface will be experienced or used. Getting context wrong or leaving it out can make or break a good design decision

Context has two levels of understanding: Surface and Deep context

Understanding user needs and gathering user insights requires deep-diving into user pain points, workflows, values, and expectations. At Experience Dynamics, we typically refer to our ethnographic field studies as “deep dives”. Deep-diving for context means you are truly leaving all assumptions at the door. Of course, you need to know what Marketing, Product Management, or Engineering think and anticipate. That said, when hunting for context, you must suspend biases, assumptions, and beliefs about users and their presumed contexts of use. 

Surface Context

First, what is Surface Context? The surface context are those things users think or say in surveys, focus groups, or to your Sales Executive. They are assumptions you bring to the product or the UX design challenge. Think of them as Marketing: customer segments, opinions, thoughts, and feelings. Many UX or persona efforts swim around the surface context and miss the ‘gold nuggets’ found below the surface. UX experts continue to advocate for focus groups like it’s 1999 as if they missed the memo that Focus Groups are broken and need fixing. This explains why a lot of UX gets close but does not quite carry the user to the blissful state that really good Interaction Design offers. I don’t need to tell you what that feels like; you know it when you experience it. 

Deep Context

Great User Experience comes from a deep understanding of the user’s tasks that live within the context of how users manage those tasks. Enter Deep Context… Deep context seeks to understand not only the problems users want to solve with your product, service or UI, but also the specialized conditions under which they use or will use the solution. Deep-diving for “depth insights” means discovering what users do and really do– not just what they report or perceive. 

Diving for Deep Context

Going beyond a surface understanding of users, their tasks and their environments means drilling into the following areas:

  • Values: What is important to users or communities?
  • Cultural aspects of use: What rituals, rules, and expectations dictate use or expected use?
  • Expectations: What do users expect to happen at each step, channel, moment or touchpoint of the User Journey?
  • Rules: How do users do things or understand steps, logic, and requirements– from their point of view?
  • Habits/Comfort zones: What are automated shortcuts or behaviors that make life easier– from their point of view?
  • Emotions/Moods: What do they want from an interaction or experience and how do emotions and mood factor into use?
  • Workflows & Workarounds: What are the tasks, steps, routines and ways users problem-solve? (user-defined or created)
  • Artifacts: What tools, actual or mental do they employ to solve a problem or complete a task? 

Note: Users are often unaware of many of these aspects (they are unconscious or unspoken, which is sort of the definition of a habit for example,), therefore they require observation and analysis. Designers can still do much of this online (see Can UX be done online?). 

What we are after with deep context insights is evidence of patterns, systems, and areas of opportunity that won’t come out of a brainstorm, a round of User Testing or a Design Sprint (unless you use the hack of bringing this depth insight to the Sprint).

See Get UX done in a week with Design Sprints…

Unearthing Insights

In 2003, I defined an approach to Deep Context user research I called “Task Analysis through Cognitive Archeology“. I attracted to this idea since archeologists dig and uncover stories of the ancient past. It turns out, I discovered later, Archeology (called Cognitive Archeology) has similar aims: it seeks to uncover the beliefs, motivations, and world views of humans who made artifacts for particular contexts of use (eg. rituals, rites etc). 

One of the things we look for at Experience Dynamics when doing “Task Analysis” is artifacts. Artifacts define humans (the only advanced tool-using species to invent tools from the start). Artifacts can take many forms. They do not necessarily have to be physical (eg a calculator), but can include cognitive (eg bookmarking), emotional (eg an emoji), or temporal (a countdown timer) artifacts users reach for or create to solve problems. Artifacts are an important aspect to discover and analyze Deep Context. 

Why should deep-diving be your default?

Surface insights produce risky user experiences. I call this “throw-away” UX Design because users can easily discard things that partially or incorrectly solve their problems or fulfill their tasks. Only by meshing with the deeper behavioral and cognitive contexts of use do we reach UX nirvana. User adoption or abandonment helps to identify the impact of establishing a poor emotional, functional, or behavioral connection with users. 

  • App abandonment: 21% of users abandon mobile apps after just one use (2018 Localytics & eMarketer). 
  • Shopping cart abandonment: 70% of users abandon e-commerce transactions (Baymard Institute 2019). The pandemic has increased this: Data from the onset of COVID this year show a 94% abandonment rate (Amperity 2020). 

In our work, we see that too many apps do not provide the satisfaction of giving users the right tasks based on how, where, and when (context) they might want to use the app. In e-commerce, with COVID-19, transparency of real-time stock and shipping delivery is critical. Worse, many e-commerce sites put shipping expectations (“Your parcel will arrive in 3 weeks”) after the purchase, causing customers to cancel the order. 


So uncovering any or all of the Deep Context factors can help mitigate risks, steer design decision-making, and provide a deeper connection with the customer– fulfilling their needs expertly. Expectation-setting, let alone understanding user expectations, is missing in COVID service experiences. Many businesses do not inform consumers properly by informing them too late or with partial information about how the service is delivered under COVID conditions. 

Continue Learning with Frank Spillers in his UX Inner Circle: www.uxinnercircle.com 

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