LearnThe C Word: How context can inform our design process


writes on January 18, 2010

Future of Web Apps Miami 2010

The C word?

You’re going to say ‘content is king‘, aren’t you? It’s true, we should be aware that if we push out poor content; we’ll reap what we sow, however The ‘C word’ for today is a different C, ‘context’.

Context could be almost anything though, surely?

I’m pleased you brought that up. Yes, most things can provide context – a photograph on it’s own can be quite subjective. If you see it on a website, the name and branding of the site itself might provide some context by defining the niche the site caters for, as would a number of other indicators you might not realise.

So why is this relevant to what I’m doing?

Another fine point! What I’m proposing is that we group together a number of things we already do and consider a few others we perhaps don’t and introduce ‘context’ as an early part of our workflow. Therefore before we even get to wire-framing & design work, we run our proposed site through the context stage.

I see this as something different to personas, which is a way of defining your audience. If we look at the different ways people might access your site, it could lead us into different ways of thinking about our site’s structure and design.

Not sure I know what you mean

For example, what if before we even get to the design phase we bring in accessibility?What about  the language we use? Are we targeting a worldwide audience or a specific country or locality?

Other examples that we could group under the ‘context’ discovery phase include:

  • Audience – Who is the content for? What expectations could there be?
  • Accessibility – How can we ensure everything we make is easily usable for everyone?
  • Design & Layout – What do the branding, colour palette and typography say? How does this work with the content?
  • Language, Localisation & Internationalisation – Is there anything about the target market that needs to be addressed?
  • Meta Data – How can we use the information about our content? Who created it, where and when for example – how much of this is relevant?
  • Categorisation & Tagging – Clear groupings and description of content through tagging gives visitors a clear idea of what the site is about. This can also help SEO.

Maybe there are more things we can consider at this early stage:

  • Location – Does where the site visitor is based have any bearing on the content?
  • Presence – If the user is available to interact via chat or if they’re present in a specific location, should they see or do anything different with the site?
  • Devices – How should the device used to access you site change the experience?
  • Social – If your visitors are a part of a social network, or a group you run within one, should this provide them with any different levels of interaction?
  • Source – What about the location or author of the content?
  • Meta Data – What meta data could help enhance the content we publish?

By holding your content up to these contexts, maybe it would enable us to look at what we’re creating and it’s purpose and open us up to new possibilities?

Example 1: Flickr

Considering contexts embedded within a photo’s meta data allows us to enhance the users experience. For example we could view a map of where the image was taken, view photos taken in the same place or nearby as well as find out the date of the photo and device used.

Flickr exmaple

Example 2: The Guardian

This heading from a recent article shows a caption describing the content of the image. In fact the whole article uses meta data to frame their perspective on the piece; when was it published, on which of their sites it appeared, which reporters were involved and where were they based?  The reporters are also linked, which is a great use of meta data as navigation.

So what’s changed?

We’ve had the rise in social media tools and different ways of consuming and re-purposing content from sites. For an increasing number of sites, content or functionality is used or consumed away from the site itself, some like Dopplr actually intending not to be a destination site in itself at it’s conception.

Your articles, videos or photos can be read or viewed through an RSS reader, maybe shown on another site through an API or posted within a social network site. The community built around your site could easily be accessing your content away from the source.


As our content is used and consumed away from our own sites, could design be redundant? Good design doesn’t just give us a nice looking template; good design works with and supports our content – it’s integral to the experience.

If anything, part of looking at context shows us that design will become more diverse as we attempt to use our branding or identity through different modes of access. Our website when viewed on a desktop machine compared to a mobile device doesn’t need to look identical but it can be a designed experience and allow us to provide something identifiable.

Expose yourself!

Increasingly, sites are opening themselves up; offering their data or functionality through a variety of APIs, which may filter through to smaller sites too. Most sites have some business logic or data that is really valuable. In many cases this could be more valuable shared with the community or be an asset as a subscription service.

Exposing our content and functionality allows what we produce to be used in many more ways. If you don’t use RSS yet, look at what your site or your business has and find something of value you can offer. Is there a way you can offer some of your data through common formats like XML or JSON and encourage people to use this in their own sites?

Strip away your design, layout & typography. How does your content work without any of this? Does it read well through assistive technologies like screen-readers? Does your RSS feed copy read well? The value of copy on the web is becoming clearer – this after all is the core of most sites!


So perhaps looking at context as a stage of our workflow could open up new possibilities. For example if you’re creating local news and event style content, should people from outside the area be shown anything different to those that are within your intended readership? Does the method through which someone accesses the site affect their experience? Should someone in the vicinity of the business associated with the site see anything different to any body else?

Why does this matter?

As our content is increasingly available through so many different methods, consider what some of these contexts might mean in the future. How might your site or content work through mobile devices or ‘Augmented Reality’, where location and presence are primary?

Your site is no longer a collection of files on a server somewhere, designed for the desktop experience. It’s so much more and the way people consume our content is likely to keep changing, maybe thinking about context can help us to embrace this?


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0 Responses to “The C Word: How context can inform our design process”

  1. @Chris point taken 😉
    I think, in my eyes the ‘context of use’ is less abotu profiling and more about considering the wider audience and niche cases so a presentation consideration can be made outside of your target audience. An example might be creating a site around English speakers in China, where most of the content is likely to be relevant to a locality – what should people outside of this target audience see or people from within the locality that don’t speak this language?

    Whether the term context is always relevant, looking at all of these ideas/concepts before system/aesthtic design should help us to push things forward!

  2. Nice article Dan.

    I like this article, although I don’t agree with all of it. I think that some of the stuff you flag as context is really just persona/profiling. Some of it is also included later in the standard design process, although you are right to say that we should be considering it earlier.

    For me, the big three for context are location, user nationality, and device, and you’ve covered those bases nicely.

    This kind of thinking is more important now we are looking more at optimization for mobile web users.

  3. Very interesting article. Context is just as important during the design process as knowing your audience. I noticed you mentioned using personas, which can be a really valuable tool for encouraging business clients to see users as individuals, rather than just a set of demographics. Tying context into a personas exercise can be really powerful.

    Understanding the context of someone’s personal circumstances, and not just the context of the data and images you’re dealing with, is super-important. David may be accessing your site in the evening, on his laptop, in a leisurely, not very task-focussed way, while watching TV, whereas Susan might only have 5 minutes to look at your site during her tea break at work (on a machine running IE6 of course!). Taking the circumstantial context of your users into consideration will help you deliver a better user experience.

  4. Yaa its really a nice comment,i got a good design tactics also from this.

  5. @Ann thanks for your comment. While I refer to “design” in the aesthetic sense, I do also mean within system design/architecture. By having a process right near the beginning of a project such as this, this will no doubt influence both design processes. While a lot of the things I’ve mentioned are being done, it’s grouping them together at a very early stage, which I feel could really expand on what we do.
    Hope that makes sense 😉

  6. The “design” you repeatedly refer to is only the aesthetic design. I completely agree that we should all be taking into consideration the “context” as you call it here, but this should be a given. Aesthetics are only one part of Design. If the other components aren’t taken into consideration, you’re just making things look pretty without true functional purpose. And that is not consistent with the definition of Design, what you are creating is art.

  7. Thanks a lot for the comments guys – they’re really appreciated!

  8. I like the idea here.

    It ads a level of strategy to the process that I feel is missing with any new client project I work on. The idea of doing a little more research and dig a little deeper in the thinking of what the purpose of the marketing piece will be used for, for print or web.

    Every design decision should be geared towards making a connection with your audience. and knowing who this audience is and what they expect will aid in designing an effective piece.

    Thanks and Regards

    Noel for Nopun.com
    a graphic design studio

  9. Great article Dan, lots of very true points there. Like a lot of things, much of this seems fairly obvious when it’s laid down in front of you. Most of the above is common sense that is frequently overlooked by even the best of us.


  10. Good article, thanks. Context is a rich seam full of opportunities for further development and ideas. There must be loads of possibilities for improving the consumption of information through context.

  11. This is a terrific article. We are currently working on a large life insurance website for 2010 and part of our process is to help the organization understands the context such as the audience and location. Some of your additional suggestions such as what social network they may have come from or link from which site could be interesting.

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