The more I consider context the more I recognise its impact on every aspect of a website. Context affects design, usability, accessibility and content. Its influence is profound, and yet it is largely ignored by many web designers.
But what is context when applied to a website? Its actually hard to define. It is easier to think in terms of the users context while access your website. Understanding this context affects how you design a site.
We put a lot of emphasis on user centric design. We believe that understanding users is important. For example, we believe in carrying out user testing. However, think for a minute about the way we do this. We bring the user into an artificial environment (such as a usability lab). We remove them from their normal context.
Equally when we create personas they focus on demographics (age, sex, job etc) rather than their context. We miss a crucial part of the jigsaw.
So what is the users context? I have identified 5 aspects that form his or her context. These are:
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Environment refers to a number of factors including location. The kind of information a user wants to access is dependant on his or her location. For example somebody planning a weekend break using their PC at home, will want information on hotels and attractions. When they are actually on their break and using their mobile phone, they are more likely to want information on the nearest pub or the opening times of a museum they want to visit.
Location does not just affect content. It can also affect design. Viewing web content outside will mean battling with sunlight and so high contrast is required. Alternatively, you do not want to be dealing with fiddly form elements while being jostled at a train station.
However, environment is not just about location it also includes distractions and surroundings. For example a mother of three toddlers may find it hard to concentrate on a complex survey, with the children demanding her attention. Equally a user accessing the web from a library is not going to appreciate audio suddenly playing on your website.
Environment also defines the type of device we use to access the web. This is another aspect of context.
Although location and the device often go hand in hand (you tend to use a PC at home and a mobile while out), this is not the only affect device has on context. The device also determines the input methods available.
Few mobile phones come with QWERTY keyboards. None come with a mouse. You can access the web via games consoles like the wii. These generally rely on gamepads, remotes and on screen keyboards.
Different input devices should radically affect the user interface. Not only do each of these devices alter how you interact with the system, they also alter how you view the information.
Typically PC users are sitting close to their monitor and viewing at relatively high resolutions. Games consoles are normally attached to a TV where you sit much further away and the resolution is lower. Mobile devices have a lower resolution still and the viewing position is different again. This all affect the design of your website.
Talking of viewing position, the other factor that needs considering is the users comfort.
How physically comfortable a user is affects the length of time they will interact with your site. Although you cannot know whether your target audience is comfortable or not, sometimes you can make an educated guess. For example, if you know your users will be accessing your site via a kiosk in a shopping mall, they will probably be standing and not stay long.
Comfort is to a large degree dictated by environment but not entirely. It can also be dictated by physical conditions. If you are launching a site aimed at those who suffer from back pain or weak bladders, do not expect them to spend a long time on your site!
In some ways comfort is also closely linked to our next factor, mood.
There is no way we can predict the emotional whims of our audience, but they do have an affect on attention span. Those who are busy or stressed get irritable with a site quicker. They are likely to give up and walk away. Conversely those who are relaxed muddle through and are more tolerant of bad design.
It is important to consider the likely temperament of your users. For example, business executives are likely to be less patient with a site than a pensioner siting in his villa in the south of France.
Environment, device and comfort can all have an impact on mood. However, the biggest influcening factor is time.
It is obvious that the time available to a user affects how long they spend on a site. However, we often do not take this into account when designing a site. Unnecessary form fields and key content buried deep within your site, are just 2 ways we ignore the time constraints users operate under.
Online banking is a good example. It is so complex to login to my account that it is quicker to pick up the phone. With time being a valuable commodity users will often choose a competitors site because they can get things done faster.
Of course, in reality there is a lot of overlap in these facets of context. However, I have yet to read much about context that isn’t directly related to mobile devices. Hopefully I have demonstrated that context applies to all the work we do and not just to mobile websites.