Tuesday, 10 May 2016

UX 103 (Part Three in a Series): Designing for a Broader Context.


This post is the third in this series. Please also see UX 101 and UX 102.

Context is an important part of understanding what people do and what they say; that context, then, is an important part of designing something to meet people's needs.


Several weeks ago I left my house and chose to turn on my home's alarm via its app. It's not the most amazing app in the world, but it does the job and generally stays out of my way. However, this time there was a problem logging in. The error that came back from the app said:

“Oops! We're unable to reach the validation server.”

I was in a mild hurry, and I was interrupted by a message with a trivial tone. This app is serious: a lifeline to my home. I can view my security camera stream or video clips of activity. And this message, at that crucial moment, chose to blow me off. “Oops!” is something I might say to my son if he were to drop a bowl of pasta on the floor. It is not what I would expect to hear from a company whose job is to provide security.

Context matters.

The people who made the app assumed what I'm trying to do was just log in – and that I'll be forgiving should a mistake occur. It's a very small view of what is happening at the moment. Let's consider another scenario and widen our focus.

Say my home alarm goes off. As a matter of course the security company texts me, calls me, and emails me but I want to see what's happening for myself. I log in to my app and... “Oops!” Again, a critical moment. I could instantly lose trust in the app, and the company. I definitely would start wondering if I made the right choice. I might start pricing out other systems. I might send them a tweet. I would worry if they could really handle securing my home.

All because of a design decision that someone made, possibly months or years ago, that may have seen completely benign at the time.


This is why user experience design begins with research and why diverse personas and scenarios must be understood. It's relatively straightforward to design for a “happy path”, when everything works perfectly, people act rationally, and nothing fails.

Here are a few ways we can explore the broader panorama in our activities.

1. Customer journey maps: Maps generally show how people interact with a system, product, or a service. Beyond creating a current state/ideal state map, additional maps could be created that adjust critical variables in order to answer tough questions: What happens when the user is distracted? What happens when the user is completely offline? What happens when the user is in an unstable emotional state? What happens when the user is frustrated and the system is down? What happens when the user needs to use your app as a matter of personal safety?

2. Persona creation: These profiles typically address demographics, actions, beliefs, and attitudes. But people are always more complex than this. Personas could include additional dimensions: level of ability and disability, work/life balance, stress levels, chronic diseases, family structures. These are all reality for our users and if we're not designing for reality, we're missing the mark.

3. Usability testing: To understand the accessibility of the prototype, web accessibility expert Leonie Watson recommends including people who need assistive technology such as screen readers in the recruit pool. Beyond that, adding selective elements from personas can address the less-common but still important situations. For example: “You've just finished a very stressful day at work. Now, you want to watch a show that will take your mind off of it. You see this screen. Show me what you would do next.”


I can't say for certain how my alarm system company developed their application. It's entirely possible that a room full of copywriters fell victim to a political battle. Maybe research wasn't involved at all. Perhaps research said it was no big deal. Or may be that the scenario I mentioned, like the more severe one, wasn't even considered.

As technology has reached more and more into our everyday lives, we've come to expect our devices to understand us: what we're doing, what we're saying, what we're feeling... we've come to expect them to be more human. Since they're not, it's more important than ever for the humans on the other end of the design to listen, think, and care.

For more information on this topic, I strongly recommend viewing Jenn Downs's talk, Empathy Cannot Be Automated, as well as the book Design for Real Life by Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer.