Location Agnostic, Context Specific

At the end of last year, I contributed to a year-end roundup piece in A List Apart called “What I Learned About the Web in 2011.” I shared the most impactful lesson I had learned from various user research projects last year.

The most important thing that 2011 taught me about web design is that physical context of use can no longer be assumed by platform, only intentional context can. For the past couple of years, we have gotten into the habit of presuming that mobile means on-the-go, desktop denotes a desk, and tablet is on the toilet. But increasingly the lines are blurring on where devices are being used and how they’re being used in unison. This year I have learned to see devices as location agnostic and instead associate them with purpose—I want to check (mobile), I want to manage (desktop), I want to immerse (tablet). This shift away from objective context toward subjective context will reshape the way we design experiences across and between devices, to better support user goals and ultimately mimic analog tools woven into our physical spaces.

When I had blogged about my reflections, Jim Nielsen commented that my thoughts had spurred him to create a graphic to represent my idea. I love it so much that I wanted to reblog it here.

Paul Boag also read my thoughts in ALA and wrote about his reaction in a post titled, “Device implies use not context.” In his case he’s using “context” to denote physical context, whereas I differentiated between physical context (location) and intentional context (intention of use). While he likes the notion of tying device to intent, he isn’t entirely sure he agrees with the intentions that I apply to each device.

What do you think of how I’m using device choice as an indication of intention and not location? Do you feel that my division of check/immerse/manage is a fair one?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts as I dig into this concept more deeply.

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  1. says

    I agree that we can’t assume much about intention from the user’s platform, but I’m not sure we can assume much about their intent either. The intents you mapped out above might be broadly true, but you need to validate with your specific audience.

    In my last job, we found a lot of people were using our admin tools (ie., “managing”) on iPads and other tablets, and were contributing (ie., “immersing”) via iPhones.

    • says

      I just realized that first sentence is gibberish. What I meant to say was that I agree we can’t infer much about physical context from the platform. But I’m not sure we can infer much about intent from that platform either.

  2. Matusz says

    I think the division of intents is well-framed, but I also have some concerns with tying them too closely to devices. It might generally hold true, but assuming this too rigidly could lead to frustration. I’m thinking in particular of an experience I had with a car rental agency. I had a problem and was trying to look up a phone number of the closest location, but their mobile site only supported a few “mobile context” operations. Their full site automatically redirected to the mobile version from any page, so I was stuck when I didn’t fit into their idea of what mobile users wanted to accomplish. As a guideline, I think this is great, as long as we keep in mind a mobile user might want to manage, or a desktop user might want to be immersed.

  3. says

    I think of my phone as a “keeping in touch” device, my iPad as an “exploring” device, and my computer as my “making & doing” device. I love seeing the evidence of similar behavioral delineations elsewhere.

  4. says

    I think that device determining intent falls victim to the same problems of device determining location. In theory it sounds rational and certainly if you laid them down next to each other, those “intents” would seem to make sense. In reality though, I feel the line is too blurry.

    The best device/browser is the one you have on you. People won’t always reach for the device that, in theory, is best suited for the purpose they want to accomplish. Instead, they’ll often reach for the one that is convenient and nearest to them.

    Stephanie Rieger’s presentation, “Beyond the Mobile Web” (slides: http://www.slideshare.net/yiibu/beyond-themobilewebbyyiibu), does a really good job of hammering home (from a mobile perspective) that the device determines very little about how it is used, for what purpose, and where.

    The other thing potential hiccup in this idea is that many people have only one device. As odd as it might sound (it did to me when I first heard it), a large number of people use their phone and only their phone to access the internet (it’s 25% in the US and as high as 70% in Egypt). For those people, their phone is for everything: checking, managing and immersion.

    I think intent is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. If we can figure all this out, then we can make sites and applications that truly respond to the users needs—no matter the situation. Unfortunately, there are just too many variables to be able to accurately determine it today.

  5. says

    I think that your use of context is an extremely fair use, and one more closely tied to how we as designers, UXers, IAs, whichever *should* be thinking. Assuming location is far to specific for any holistic design solution, more importantly assuming location tells us very little about user behavior and usage. I LOVE the idea that you pose of intention, because that is what UX is all about, understanding intent and designing experiences for it (to support it, manipulate it, etc). Awesome thoughts!

  6. says

    I wish Paul would have riffed on that a little more, but that’s ok. Maybe he will!

    I think what you have found is generally true. But, if people are particularly tied to one tool or favor it, they always look for ways to bend it to their needs if there’s a way to do it.

    Where these “outliers” act is often where the really cool stuff starts happening and great opportunities are.

  7. says

    “Dessine-moi un mouton”

    I believe mental models are changing rapidly and above and beyond, new mental models are being embraced on a fast pace.

    Kids nowadays playing with smartphones and tablets, became a stereotype, but we should pay a deeper attention on how they will perceive the future interfaces and interactions because they already have a mental model formed and they start from there, not like us. It’s our job to map this model and, well :) “make stuff easier and more pleasurable” for them.

    Location has become common sense. We expect to know where we are, what we do, what we feel all the time regardless where our feet touch the ground.

    And not only our physical location as individuals and matter but we expect to locate phones, computers, cars, wife, kids, pets and interact with them too, remotely. I mean, there are trains in Europe who twit.
    And we took it naturally, and add it to our mental model: “Of course I want to know where the train is right now and if it’s running late….” Now, try to explain to your child, why you were happy when you were a kid seeing the train about to arrive in the train station.

    But everything is relative and subjective in life. And we’re doing this with great passion and we love people and we love helping them and I’m sure we’ll make their journey a pleasant one. We just need to get in the same train with them and feel them, anytime, anyplace.


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