The Value of Context in Design Pt.1

Since coming back from IA Summit the word “Context” has been bouncing around in my head. Context seemed to be a pretty consistent theme throughout a lot of the sessions and conversations at the summit.

As I have been unpacking how context relates to interaction design it is becoming very clear to me that it has immense value on a few different levels, a value that is often overlooked or missed as we move through the various stages within design process.

It should be said at this point that these are my personal observations based on experience, and by no means am I the authority on the topic. I simply hope that by sharing some of my personal observations that you will be able to benefit from them and/or start down the path to forming your own.


What is context and why are we talking about it in relationship to design? Context is information, valuable information that provides us with understanding and insight into a particular event, situation, or interaction.

Context is the history that helps our understanding of the object or situation.

As designers we are constantly building interactions. These interactions can take the form of physical or virtual connections. If we hold to the definition of context above we can see that context can become an ally that educates us, enabling us to make more informed design decisions.

Context is vital not only to the interactions we are building but also to the interactions we are having. For the first post in this series we will look at a couple of the relational interactions where I have recently found context be very helpful.

Relational Interactions

It is a part of everyday life to have interactions with other people. As designers the interactions we have as a part of our process are vital to what we are building, and play a large part in their success or failure.

Critique Sessions / Design Reviews

When we are in the critique process context plays a very important role. A lot goes into a design, not just ideas, but also constraints, deadlines and other variables that affect the outcome of the design. When we take time to learn more about why design decisions were made (the context) we can offer better feedback and insight that will help improve the product or design.

To help in understanding the context of designs during a critique session lead with questions, gather as much information as you can this will help you get a clearer picture of the context in which the design was built, and then evaluate your initial thoughts against the context. This will help us offer feedback that is helpful to the designer.

The same goes for when we are receiving feedback, by asking questions about why (or how) the individual offering feedback came to that conclusion we can gain a better understanding of their perspective of what type of design will meet what they understand as goals for the project.

Joining a Team

Context is also helpful when joining a new team. When we start a new job it is common to want to dive right in show what we know, and how we can add value to the team.

I recently joined a new design team when I started at IGN. Something that I found helpful was to try to touch base with as many of the team members as I could one on one and ask questions about the teams approach to design, and how different individuals liked to work. I also made sure to connect with the other teams that I would be interacting with on a regular basis like dev, and engineering teams.

This didn’t mean that I wasn’t proactive in trying to make an impact right away; I just made more of an effort to inform myself as to the ways that I could make an impact that was beneficial to everyone. Of course this will be different in every environment so find out what approach will work best for you.

Wrapping Up

Whether it is strategy or planning meetings, meetings in which you are setting goals for products or the design team, or any other of the various meeting and interactions you find yourself having, the key is gathering as much context as you can.

Sometimes you will be able to do some research before meetings, and as a result have insights that will help you to better understand processes and approach. There will also be times where in the midst of a meeting asking questions about specific ideas or scenarios will help you get the context you need to be better informed to do your job. Situations and techniques may vary but again they key is to find a way that helps you get the information you need, be creative.

Context can provide us information that can help us work more efficiently, producing well-targeted designs and successful products. This may seem like common sense, and more than likely it is. I am of the belief that the often fast paced world of design contributes to our looking past so much of the valuable information that context can provide.

These were two specific situations that provided the most information. I am sure this doesn’t even come close to covering all the scenarios.I would love to hear your story.

What techniques have you used to get the context that helped improve a design or product? What didn’t work?

Next up in the series we will look at how context can apply to the things we learn, and how it can help us more effective execute the changes that comes as a result of what we learn.

21. April 2011 by Aaron Irizarry
Categories: Culture, Design Rules, Design/Development, User Experience | Tags: , , , , , | 5 comments