Context Isn’t Easy or: if you wouldn’t complain to your surgeon about taking her time, don’t complain to your design team

Products are more than they seem. This is true for both marketing and design. Many of us have largely been taught to focus on functional goals and actions, and to be fair there are many good reasons to understand functional needs. Unfortunately, the approach, which is rekindled every few years under a different guise (e.g. “Jobs To Be Done”) is limiting. And in an increasingly connected world, potentially dangerous. Yes, I am again talking about context. Context is a slippery topic that evades attempts to define it too narrowly. Some definitions cover just the immediate surroundings of an interaction. Others try to limit to specific types of interactions. But in the interwoven space-time of the web, context is no longer just about the here and now. Instead, context refers to the physical, digital, symbolic, and social structures that surround the point of use. Reducing usability, design, innovation to a series of functional components spells disaster.

Let’s talk about chainsaws. If I’m a maker of chainsaws, loggers, home users, and chainsaw artists all have very different needs. They all need to be safe and all need to quickly cut wood. They must be durable, easy to sharpen, easy to maintain, easy to carry and store them, etc. All these considerations have functional implications for design. But at a symbolic leave, seeing the logo may matter. Having a loud motor may establish a sense of seriousness and masculinity. Having a scarred, beaten up tool may show your job is a family affair over generations, thus creating a sense of credibility and self-worth. The point is that the functions and features are not the only things to consider from a design perspective.

Similarly, if you think about medicine, things aren’t as simple as they seem. Rural doctors and nurses face different issues than someone working at a hospital in an affluent suburb or an inner-city psychiatric center with in-patient and out-patient facilities. They all have some fundamental things that need to be done, but the contexts in which they operate influence what parts of a complex solution they use, how they use them, and who has responsibility for their use. But unlike chainsaws (MAYBE), the ramifications for missing these data points (and I am using “data” in its original sense of information rather than simply numbers) can be devastating, even deadly. The point is, we can’t ignore complexity and while it’s infinitely simpler to take a functional, reductionist approach, the risks are also much higher. That means being able to argue for a more experiential research approach with the people who hold the purse strings.

Research trades assumptions for knowledge, boosting confidence in your decisions. Done right, it can encourages empathy within a team and leads down routes that may not otherwise considered. There are, of course, many research methods to draw upon, but no prescription for choosing the right approach. First, understand the battle. It’s always tempting to start with numerical tools like analytics and surveys. Both offer the comfort of volume, but context is a largely qualitative art. Contextual details are ambiguous and lead to more questions. Making sense of them is hard and so they often fall through the gaps between numbers. While quantitative methods are a decent starting point, they almost never yield the depth that qualitative work yields.

Interviews will help in understanding motivations, priorities, and mental models, but the nature of narrative is a rooted in memory and perception, limiting how much you can actually uncover. Writing a script to cover your main context questions helps tremendously, as does being comfortable deviating from it as interesting points arise, but it’s still a matter of a person telling you something with the benefit of seeing the surroundings. Ultimately, the limitation of interviews – their self-reporting nature – is exacerbated when researching context. Participants may not accurately depict their contexts, or may omit relevant points.

Contextual enquiries and full-blown ethnographic methods allow a much closer, much richer look. Here, a researcher shadows and/or participates with the participant, asking questions to clarify understanding and prompt elaboration. Information is gathered in the moment, allowing questions to emerge in response to observations. 

There’s nothing new in this, we’re all familiar with an ethnographic approach at this point. What we’re often less skilled at is articulating why it matters to design, innovation, and, when all is said and done, to the bottom line. Companies want things done cheaply, quickly, and with minimal effort or expense. It would be lovely if we could limit the world to practical, functional terms alone when designing or marketing products, but the reality is that those days are long gone. Missing context means missing information, and getting at context takes time and effort.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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