Content is dead, long live context

No, content is not dead. Yes content is important, but there can only be one king and I am beginning to wonder if it is context.

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:

  • Environment
  • Device
  • Comfort
  • Mood
  • Time

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Environment

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.

Device

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.

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.

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.

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.

  • http://exceptionalarticles.com PW

    Unfortunately, we can’t control any of those factors for our readers. The only thing we can control is the content that makes them want to brave all of those factors and keep reading.

  • http://www.targetict.com neil

    interesting points, totally different angle to other points ive read about web design. I think content is important for so many reasons, haven’t given context much thought.

  • http://www.catskillwebsitedesign.com/ SAL

    I agree with PW we can’t control the factors but knowing the customer context while they are browsing is important for making decisions on the kinds of technology/media used.
    If folks are browsing at work for information do they have the time or attention span to watch a 10 minute video on a subject or would they be better off reading a short article that takes 3-4 minutes to get the same info with a print feature to take it with them?
    I’ve seen too many sites that opt for the high end tech when I would have simply liked to have an article to read and/or print because I did not have the time.

  • http://blog.scrumpy-jack.com/ simon

    excellent article. While I’m more of a programmer, I still find that there is a need to consider a user’s context. In my personal experience I have found that too often many websites will give no consideration to time available. In most cases this is obvious by the amount of clutter on the pages especially ads. This distracts and makes learning your way around an unfamiliar site (something we are starting to get adept at) overly complicated. A case in point is about.com
    On the pther hand, a perfect example of a website that considers context supremely is Google. There is no clutter and the design and interface as well as infrastructure have all been optimised to be as non-intrusive as possible and make the user experience a breeze. This I believe is a major factor in google’s success as #1 search engine. Compare their efforts to the next 4 search engines. Even #2 Yahoo! has a complex home page hence #2.
    If content is king, context is queen, court and subjects – without them he just wouldn’t be king at all!

  • Johan

    That is the whole point, you need to make the end-user feel it is all real.

  • Jason Rhodes

    I’m not sure if your contrast is a real one. When we say “content is king” we mean that content matters more than design in the long run, because people don’t come on websites just to look at your pretty design. They come for the content, and design should facilitate the content.
    To say that context is the real king doesn’t make any sense in this, um, context.
    Context is like the masses, or the lobbyists, or something. Ugh what horribly strained metaphors, never mind. Context is one of the things you have to consider as you design your sites to best present your content. So Paul, I think everything you said is mostly right (weak bladdered users might be a bit of a stretch?), but perhaps you overstated your case a wee bit?

  • http://bedroomation.com/ Douglas Greenshields

    This is a really helpful article. Context, it seems to me, is incredibly important already. I always thought the obsession with web content as opposed to other matters such as style was merely serving to transition old media forms onto the web. The web is a different place, where ‘content’, ‘context’ and all these other things combine in new and unpredictable ways.
    Consider Twitter: individual pieces of content would have next to no value without the context they’re placed in.
    Consider Facebook: would anyone bother if it was just about this thing we call ‘content’?
    Contextual advertising is what’s growing on the web at the moment. While the jury’s out as to whether this necessarily means a futureworld like that portrayed in Minority Report (I’m actually referring to the Spielberg movie), the act of splitting ‘content’ off from ‘context’, and proclaiming the first of those king, will become increasingly redundant.
    Amazon get a lot of their business from recommendations. You can see how a lot of online music sales are already going the same way.
    We’ll soon have a greater variety of Web devices. The chasm between the mobile and desktop worlds are narrowing more and more. People use these devices in completely different contexts already. Yet, for example, when people suggest using audio on websites (as in, background audio), we say it’s generally a bad idea, and little more. Yes, it is generally a bad idea, but there are contexts where it is perfectly acceptable, and we need to build up a vocabulary which reflects how the Web is already used all the time.
    We should be thinking about appropriate interfaces for our users. When functionality is comparable, a good interface will always stand out. Or, to put it another way, when content is comparable, sensitivity and smartness with regards to context will always win out.

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