In the world of experience design, it is difficult to think of a design influence more important than context of use. Context provides many of the essential clues about the type of experience which the product user desires and thus how the elements of design can best be constructed.
Consider the contrasting experience offered by the following three eating establishments: James Street South (a popular high–class restaurant in Belfast); O’Brien’s (a successful Irish–owned chain of sandwich bars); and McDonald’s (requires no further explanation).
James Street South is an ideal way to spend an evening with a loved one or loved ones to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday or anniversary. Attentive waiter service over two or three hours and three or four courses allows the diners to enjoy each other’s company and to briefly forget about the pressures, stresses and busyness of life. Each aspect of the experience is designed around diners who are taking time out and for once don’t wish to think about time.
Hard–working under–pressure business people will often meet in O’Brien’s for lunch because their experience desires are based around the need for consistency and speed. Typically they will have an hour for soup and a sandwich and if the restaurant is speedy enough, they might well order a coffee to finish their meal. Consistency of product and speed of service are built into how O’Brien’s do things, for those reasons.
The context of use for McDonald’s is much more straightforward. Adults go to McDonald’s for one reason only – to try to cure their hangover – and so McDonald’s and the diner want the same thing: for the customer to be in and back out as quickly, easily and effortlessly as possible. The experience is thus built around effortless self–service, speed and efficiency.
In each case, the three restaurants offer the same base products, namely food, drink and shelter, however, the experiences differ because the contexts differ. If James Street South fed and watered their diners within ten minutes they would never come back and if McDonald’s took three hours to serve food they’d quickly close down. And the reason is because the context allows the restaurant manager to prioritise (and, as a corollary, de–prioritise) aspects of experience around the desired context for the user.
Or to re–state this using product–design speak, each of the three types of restaurants is solving different problems.
This was starkly illustrated through our involvement in a recent app project. Working with one of the premier alcohol clinicians in Ireland, Fathom designed an app to assist alcoholics during the recovery process. The app was sensitive to the mindset of the patient at any given time and provided an experience for that context. There were a variety of important contexts of use, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus on two.
The first experience was a thorough “on–boarding” experience for an alcoholic who was close to rock bottom and recognised the need for change. The experience was designed for a clinician’s office, with up to an hour required to sign up and register thoroughly on the system; deeply personal information was elicited from the patient, such as worst experience with alcohol and the names of friends and family negatively impacted by the addiction.
The second experience was the polar opposite of this. It was the provision of immediate content for times when the patient was facing temptation, such as passing an off–licence on a Friday night, or at a wedding or other social gathering. In such contexts, the app provided a simple “panic button” to give the patient the intervention required to give them the very best chance of avoiding the temptation. This button immediately brought up a picture of, or a message from, a loved one (or a related piece of content).
In both cases the experience was heavily driven by the context, to assist the patient in their different environments.
It is the commitment to context and the focus on problem–solving which protects the marketer from the worst excesses of design indulgence. When the digital product focuses on the problem it solves, all of a sudden there simply isn’t space for the banner ad, the needless Twitter feed, the cluttered menu, the irrelevant piece of vanity content, or the latest coolest content format. The tail stops wagging the dog as every design decision demands to know 1) what problem is the user trying to solve, 2) what content does she need to solve it, 3) in what order can the system best provide the content and functionality required to do so and 4) how can we learn from behaviour to constantly improve system performance over time.