Definition: The surroundings, circumstances, environments, background, and settings that determine, specify, or clarify the meaning of an event or other occurrence.
Also referenced as: Contextual (adjective) Contexts (noun)
The word context was used 26 times across 17 pages
We live our lives across channels.
It's common to see someone using a smartphone while sitting in front of a computer screen, or reading a magazine while watching TV.
As users, our context is the situation we're in, including where we are, what we're trying to do, how we're feeling, and anything else that shapes our experience. Our context is always unique to us and can't be relied upon to hold steady.
In this context, I'm using several different channels: Twitter, a smartphone, and TV.
For example, a website may serve someone browsing on a phone from their couch, on a tablet at a coffee shop, or on a desktop computer in a cubicle.
What channels do your users prefer? What context are they likely in when encountering what you're making? How are they feeling? Are they in a hurry? Are they on slow Wi-Fi? Are they there for entertainment or to accomplish a task?
Considering these small details will make a huge difference for you and your users.
Imagine trying to design a luxury fashion magazine using a technical system for grocery store coupons. The features you need may seem similar enough until you consider your context. That's when reality sets in.
When architecting information, focus on your own unique objectives. You can learn from and borrow from other people. But it's best to look at their decisions through the lens of your intended outcome.
These concepts don't necessarily live under an established hierarchy or sequence. For example, in the diagram above, I've outlined the various aspects of running a pizza parlor as the owner (me!) might think about them.
The rows represent the user's context (e.g., outside, on the bus, at home). Each point represents an event or a task that makes up the overall journey. Each point is placed sequentially as it relates to the other points.
This example shows events that only involve one person, but journey maps are also useful for showing the movement of pairs, teams, and organizations.
The power of a matrix diagram is that you can make the boxes collect whatever you want. Each box becomes a task to fulfill or a question to answer, whether you're alone or in a group.
After making a simple matrix of users, contexts, players, and channels, you'll have a guide to understanding the mess. By admitting your hopes and fears, you're uncovering the limits you're working within.
For example, if you built a public park, you might make a path to walk on, a picnic area, a playground, some bathrooms, and a soccer field. These areas were made with tasks in mind.
If parkgoers wear down a path through your fresh laid grass, you as the parkitect (ha!) could see it as an annoyance. Or you could see it as a space between places and pave over it so people can get where they want to go without walking through the mud.
A space is an open, free, or unoccupied area.
No matter what you're making, your users will find spaces between places. They bring their own context and channels with them, and they show you where you should go next. Find areas in flux and shine a light on them.
The average person gives and receives directions all day long, constantly experiencing the impact of language and context. Whether it's a grocery list from a partner or a memo from a manager, we've all experienced what happens when a poor choice of words leads to the wrong outcome. Whether we're confused by one word or the entire message, the anxiety that comes from misunderstanding someone else's language is incredibly frustrating.
Imagine that on your first day at a new job every concept, process, and term you're taught is labeled with nonsense jargon. Now imagine the same first day, only everything you're shown has clear labels you can easily remember. Which second day would you want?
We can be insecure or secure about the language we're expected to use. We all prefer security.
If we were to write a dictionary, we'd be practicing lexicography, or collecting many meanings into a list. When we decide that a word or concept holds a specific meaning in a specific context, we are practicing ontology.
Here are some examples of ontological decisions:
To refine your ontology, all you need is a pile of sticky notes, a pen, and some patience.
Go through each term as a group and use this as a forum for educating each other on what you know about language and context. Don't "uh huh" your way through words you've never heard or don't understand. Instead, untangle acronyms and unfamiliar phrases.
Are you facing a mess like Rasheed's? Do your stakeholders speak the same language? Do you collectively speak the same language as your users? What language might be troublesome in the context of what you are doing? What concepts need to be better understood or defined?
To control your vocabulary:
Consider these factors:
Postal codes are what we call an exact classification. We can generally rely on the codes to hold steady. If the postal code is 10012, the building is in Manhattan. There's nothing to argue about. It just is.
Movie genres like Comedy and Drama may seem exact. But if you put three movie reviewers in a room and ask them to classify a dark comedy into one of those two genres, they may challenge each other.
For example, in editing this book, Nicole suggested I use the term "Postal code" instead of "Zip code" in the example above. Both would have expressed the point, but one is more exact for our context, which includes readers outside of the United States.
If you owned an online grocery service, would you dare to only list tomatoes as fruit?
But what if I told you that squash, olives, cucumbers, avocados, eggplant, peppers, and okra are also fruits that are commonly mistaken as vegetables?