It isn’t earth–shattering, it is barely controversial and it’s certainly not new to assert that everything in the world is interconnected. This self–evident observation impacts not just creative and technical disciplines such as design and technology but also philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.
Buddhists will tell you that we are connected not just to other people but to the air, through our breath and to the universe, through light. Designers believe that all design sits within an ecosystem and that by pursuing and understanding context, we can make it better.
Two foundational UX frameworks – tools of design thinking if you will – reflect the importance of interconnectedness.
These are features vs goals, and personas.
Both of these frameworks focus on pursuing context, recognising that the functions and features of the software are closely connected with the goals, behaviours and context of the users who interact with those functions. Perhaps more importantly, they believe that the harder designers work to understand context, the better they can do their job.
Features vs goals thinking considers the fact that software has features but users have goals. The website provides functions to enable the user to renew their passport, but the user’s goal is to go on holiday. The website provides features to allow the user to buy a new shirt for the weekend, but the user’s goal is to look good on a date.
I have never felt entirely comfortable with Theo Levitt‘s famous features vs goals quote “People don’t want to buy a quarter–inch drill, they want a quarter–inch hole.”
Who wants a quarter–inch hole?
Much better to argue surely that they don’t want a quarter–inch hole, they want to hang a picture.
Or that they don’t want to hang a picture, they want a beautiful and personal home.
Whatever people’s ultimate motivation for owning or using a quarter–inch drill bit, where I can concur with Levitt is in the positive impact which understanding context has on design. The pursuit of context empowers designers to ask good questions about user’s motivations, their priorities and what persuades or inhibits them from use. These questions can help designers understand functions and features which are most frequently used, most familiar and most valuable.
Another mainstay of design thinking, personas, also seeks to understand and summarise the human context which informs and guides design. User personas are archetypical users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of users. While there is no exactly correct way to create personas, most do seek to outline the goals (what is the user trying to achieve), behaviour (what user behaviours are relevant to the design or does the design wish to support) and context (what is the environment, be that physical, technical or cognitive) with which the design needs to work.
This exploration of context informs important design decisions such as tone of voice, content prioritisation, flow, persuasion design and information architecture. It empowers the design to communicate with the user rather than communicating at them or communicating to them.
The importance of context is second nature in other design disciplines. My father is a retired architect, and when he is asked his opinion on a house, his first instinct is to walk to a window and work out where the sun rises and sets. Because he understands that the house’s relationship with light is an enormous factor in what it is like to live in the house. My sister graduated in fashion design, and she spent her final year not just designing clothes but making clothes. Because in fashion design it is understood that a garment’s design quality can only be assessed when it is hanging on a human, interacting with the light and matching or contrasting with other fabrics and other garments on the body.
World philosophies worked out a long time ago that everything relies on everything else.
Design disciplines have always had consideration for context at the heart of their philosophies.
Software and digital design uses frameworks such as features vs goals, personas and jobs to be done to pursue and describe context. These connect the motivations and desires of the user and the environment within which they exist with the functions and features of the digital product.
If we can embrace and implement those frameworks we might just be able to move our users a little closer to a state of Zen.