Context can feel ephemeral. It’s the intangible surrounding; as designers of human experience understanding context is essential. However, communicating context has become a growing challenge. When Service Design became a word we started using in UX a lot of us weren’t sure how to carry out service thinking into our process. Those of us eager to broaden, not just our own horizons but, the applicability of our designs were confronted with several challenges.
First of all challenges was escaping the user interface. The onus as designers is often to ‘get to design’. There’s often an impatience prior to design, however the future of UX will be measured by seamless, joined up and contextually aware experiences. The interface will become what it should always have been; the tool by which the end user can get on with their life.
The need to think about context is certainly pressing. In the future we will have the consideration of wearables, times and places people use a devices in addition to cities and spaces that become less analog and more aware of the people in them. This is not to mention the benefits of knowing what people want when they’re walking into a store, theater or about to embark on a trip. Think of all the frustrations you’ve experienced reiterating to someone what you want when you’ve already given the information to someone a thousand times.
Services, have a philosophy behind them. That philosophy is grounded in awareness. However a person has started their interactions with a service provider their journey should not end once they close their browser, it should continue wherever they interact ; be that on a flight, cruise ship, store, hospital or government office. It means that a person should be seamlessly recognized and that they should be able to flexibly control their experience. This implies that as technologies evolve and we become more fluent at joining services together we will have to learn to think harder at what people need at different points and times. Moreover an important skill will increasingly be an understanding how to work with the contexts ofpeoples lives beyond the user interface.
Imagine you’re booking a hotel stay. You have a profile. You make selections about the things you’re interested in but, when you arrive you find that you’ve been forgotten. How much more seamless would your experience be if you had found that on your flight the TV knows who you are, there’s information ready on your phone or the airport when you arrive and at your hotel room is now your concierge.
Google has already gone a long way in recognizing where we are and what we might want with Google Now. But, there’s a long way to go. The main reason are threefold.
First, we jump to the user interface too quickly. Services are the products of the modern day. Good design now is good design for the services we use; in large part that implies increased personalization. It also implies greater understanding of the moments in our experiences. For that to be realized we have to spend more time thinking about who is doing what and across what time.
Second, we have to work harder at pushing for research. The reality is that more often than not understanding the nuances in people’s lives is hard work. Knowing what will be useful, delightful and what the real frustrations and opportunities are mean that we need to be in the wild at the places where the experiences take place. We need to sit with people and collect information from the horse’s mouth.
Third, we don’t use the tools at our disposal. Parsons Journal for Information Mapping has a great article on how we already have many tools at our disposal. UX, in its use of flow diagrams is not far off from Service Blueprints and Experience Maps; tools that help pinpoint what information people will be valued are already in our toolkit. when.
A recent article on Fast Co. really made the case well. Here is a direct quote from some of the points made in the post:
User Personas: When speaking with someone you take their personality and character into account. This informs how you interact with them. For example, some people might be more fact-based in their communications, because others may prefer a more emotion-oriented approach to interaction. In a contextual application, taking the persona of the user into account can tell decisions about the application’s communication style and emphasis.
User Affinity: Your conversation partner has specific likes and dislikes. If you know this, it will tell your response to them. In an application, directing the user toward content or functionality that they are likely to appreciate improves the utility of your service.
User Goals: In a natural conversation, you often become aware that your conversation partner is attempting to achieve a specific and immediate goal within the conversation. A good conversationalist will help their counterpart find a way to accomplish their goal. Likewise, applications should dynamically optimize themselves in the service of user goals.
User Environments: Conversations don’t take place in a vacuum, they occur within an environment. An environment includes a physical location, such as a person’s home, work, or commute. Locations might afford specific opportunities, such as Jane’s proximity to the grocery store enabling her grocery shopping. Besides a location, an environment can also include hardware technology: Is the interaction with the app taking place through a phone? A car? A tablet? A pair of glasses? What kind of sensor data such as biometric information–pulse, blood pressure–are available? What are the ambient light levels and ambient sounds? Applications should take environmental factors into account and adjust themselves accordingly.
Aggregating and Analyzing Context: The four contextual dimensions: Personas, Affinity, Goals, and Environment (PAGE), comprise the complete context of a conversational participant. Context paints a revealing picture about the conversant that can explain their behavior. We conduct natural conversations within this context and, similarly, applications should understand the aggregate contexts of their users.
Your Agenda: In addition to the context of your conversation partner, in any conversation there is also your agenda to consider. What are you trying to accomplish? Applications have natural innate business goals, such as delivering advertising impressions, converting e-commerce leads, or simply providing good service to users.
Modal Response: The aggregated context of your conversation partner, plus your agenda, combines to give you everything you need to know to converse appropriately. In a natural conversation, you would process these inputs (usually unconsciously) so you could respond in the most effective way possible. Your response would contain specific content and style, all of which were tailored to be appropriate to the context of the person with whom you were speaking, and to be delivered in the best way to advance your agenda. Contextual apps should also respond modally with specifically tailored functionality and content.
Continuity: You usually wouldn’t just forget about the last conversation you had with someone because a couple of hours or days had passed. If there were unresolved issues you’d pick them back up where you left off. Natural conversations can also survive a switch of environments: For example, if you were texting with someone you could switch to a voice call and continue the conversation seamlessly. Contextual apps should be able to do the same. You should be able to resume a session with a contextual service and have the important parts of your previous interaction still relevant. Additionally you should be able to move from environment to environment (changing location, devices etc.) and continue the same conversation as you do.
Ubiquity: Conversations can occur anywhere in the world, online or offline, and contextual apps should be able to do the same. In general, the distinction between the physical and digital world is being steadily erased. App designers should think in terms of contextual services as they interact with users in the real world.
And the truth is that there are many kinds of data available to us as designers of systems; location, preferences, past choices, friends and their choices, age, these are but a fraction of the tools that we can use to help people have experiences that are better integrated with their lives.
To end I wanted to give a few resources that I think are worth checking out:
- Customer Journey Framework (created at Method)
- Service Design Tools.org a great website for finding resources and inspiration
- A Collection of Service Design Maps