What is Context of Use in UX Design?

Summary:  UX or service design success hinges on understanding the context of use of a design. Context of use refers to the conditions and environments in which a product or service is used. This understanding is crucial for creating designs that meet users’ needs and provide experiences that meet the moment.

What is Context of Use?

Context of use encompasses the circumstances involving users, tasks, and environments (UTE) related to a product or service. It includes:

  1. Users: Who is using the product or service and under which conditions?  Understand how they might have to or want to change how they solve their problems based on context triggers.
  2. Tasks: What tasks are users trying to accomplish and under which conditions? Understand where and how their goals and workflows are shaped by contextual factors.
  3. Environments: Where is the product or service being used? Consider shifting physical, social, emotional, and temporal (time-based UX) demands.

Why is Context of Use Important?

Context of use is often missed or under-appreciated by both Product and UX teams. Why? As humans we get so used to environmental conditions and constraints, such as social interactions, we ignore their importance. Matthew Lieberman, a leading social neuroscience researcher, makes this point in his TEDx talk.

Yes, but: Context is necessary for meaning. However with bias running as a default mode of thinking, who needs meaning when you can impose your own? Brainstorming? Assumption? Regular business-as-usual practices for UX and Product teams that don’t do regular, ongoing user research.

Why it matters: Three key must-have dynamics for good UX are at stake.

  1. Aligning with real-world constraints: Understanding context helps UX designers create solutions that fit seamlessly into and alongside users’ lives and address real problems.
  2. Situational relevance: A deep understanding of context ensures that products and services are relevant to users’ needs and situations, enhancing task success– but also feeling more aligned with their situations and scenarios.  Contextual research helps identify problems and pain points that may not be obvious in a lab setting, focus group, or survey.
  3. Usability & Accessibility: Contextual insights lead to better usability and disability-friendly designs. Designs that consider the environment and tasks are easier and more efficient to use.

Sheri Byrne-Haber (Disabled, works at W3) pointed out in a recent post: “While I think the new Anthropologie Adaptive clothing line is interesting, I know exactly *zero* female wheelchair users who would wear this jacket or dress (except for a fashion shoot of course)….

Woman in custom wheelchair looking over her shoulder wearing a very oversized denim jacket and flowy beige dress that are in contact with her wheels

…Our wheels are absolutely filthy. Everything that is on every surface we roll on (sidewalks, parking lots, dirt paths, bathroom floors) is on our wheels. I have picked up oil, ketchup, dirt, bird poop (and poop of other mammals if you get my drift), fertilizer, and every drink known to humanity just to name a few substances. What wheelchair users really don’t want is for all that yuck to come into contact with expensive clothing. People with custom wheelchairs frequently have guards to protect our clothing from getting into contact with our wheels. Think of it like a chain guard on a bicycle. So why in the everlasting heck would a designer think that someone in a wheelchair would want a jacket or dress that would either be bunched up under our butts, or on our filthy wheels? There is also a safety problem here. If the excess fabric got caught in the spokes, it could very easily get stuck, rip, and possibly even jolt the chair, creating a real physical danger for the wheelchair user”.

Her observations about the new Adaptive clothing piece illustrate perfectly design that does not consider context of use, or inclusion requirements.

Key Questions for Discovering Context of Use

By exploring the context of use, designers can uncover new opportunities for innovation and improvement. At Experience Dynamics we bring these seven questions and more to our Field Study consulting projects:

  1. Where do your users engage with your product or service? (physically, environmentally, device-specific)
  2. What is happening to the user when they are using it? (social or emotional influences)
  3. What is physically or socially preventing users from completing their tasks? (e.g., another party or person has to act first)
  4. When does usage happen and what triggers it? (timing and coordination)
  5. What expectations do users bring to the task? (mental model)
  6. Why do users want to do this before that? (workflow, motivation, flow)
  7. What makes sense to users and why does that differ from how you think about it? (content, labeling, problem-solving)

In this video from my Mobile UX course for Interaction Design Foundation, I explain context of use in designing for mobile.

How to Bring Context of Use into UX and Service Design

  1. User Research: Start with thorough user research. Conduct interviews and observations to gather information about users and their contexts. Techniques like ethnographic field studies, aka Field Studies are particularly valuable.
  2. Personas and Scenarios: Create personas and scenarios that reflect real user contexts. Personas represent different user types, while scenarios depict typical tasks and environments. See How to use personas properly…
  3. Contextual Inquiry: Use contextual inquiry to observe and interview users in their natural environments. This method provides rich insights into how users interact with products and services in real-world settings.
  4. Task Analysis: Perform task analysis to understand the steps users take to achieve their goals. This helps identify opportunities for improvement and innovation.
  5. Environmental Analysis: Examine the physical and technological environments where the product or service will be used. Consider factors like lighting, noise, device compatibility, and accessibility.
  6. Prototyping and Testing: Develop prototypes and conduct usability testing using actual or simulated contexts. This is critical with product-service prototyping. This helps validate design decisions and uncover context-specific issues.
The Big Ideas
  • Understanding the context of use is vital for successful UX and service design. It ensures that designs are user-centered, usable, relevant, and familiar to users.
  • By integrating contextual research into the design process, teams can create products and services that meet users’ contextual needs, boosting success.
  • Investing in understanding the context of use (through regular Field Studies) ultimately leads to higher user satisfaction, loyalty, and market success.
  • Incorporate context of use into your next design project to see its transformative impact. By doing so, you’ll create more meaningful and compelling user experiences, ensuring your designs stand out in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Go Deeper: 
How to explain ease of use vs context of use to your boss

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