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Context of Use for Mobile

| 18 min read

Before we dive into design approaches for mobile, you need to understand the context of mobile users and their unique characteristics. If you understand the big picture (context) of a user’s interaction with a device—the social, emotional, physical, and cultural factors—you can create better user experiences. Let’s look at these design constraints and opportunities and how knowing them can help you get user adoption and differentiation right for your app. 

In this video, Frank shares practical tips on how to understand context of use and how to take it into account when designing for mobile devices.

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As you can see, the mobile context varies from person to person. Unlike how they act with a desktop, people don’t pay full attention to their smartphones—they concentrate on the move. They may be looking out for a cab at a noisy intersection (with details of their cab ride on their phones), or jogging in a park (while listening to music), or scrolling through their social media feed while waiting for food at a restaurant. In each of these cases, we can’t—and shouldn't—expect them to be fully attentive to their devices. As Luke Wroblewski mentions, they use “one hand, one eyeball”. 

“People use their smartphones anywhere and everywhere they can, which often means distracted situations that require one-handed use and short bits of partial concentration. Effective mobile designs not only account for these one thumb/one eyeball experiences but aim to optimize for them as well.”

— Luke Wroblewski, Product Director at Google

What Factors Influence Context of Use? 

When thinking about user context, you should consider:

  • Environmental factors: For example, the noise, the light, the space in which something is used, privacy.

  • Cultural factors: Customs, traditions, rules, religion, manners and laws. 

  • Inclusion factors: Factoring for unique use cases and interactions based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability, socio-economic status, and more.

  • Activity/workload: Are they walking, driving, working, multi-tasking, using multiple channels, multiple devices, etc.?

  • Social factors: Who else is there? Who else is the user interacting with? What is the user concerned about socially (for example, reputation, exposure, embarrassment)? 

  • Emotional factors: Is the user feeling happy? Frustrated? Did something upset the user? Is the user anxious, worried, or stressed? Are they thinking of the problem differently due to something else going on or that happened in the past? In other words, their mood and mental model.

  • Goals: What are the users’ desired outcomes? What do they want to accomplish; how do they think about the problem they are trying to solve? 

  • Cognitive load: What is the users’ attention span—is it continuous or intermittent? What else is going on in their minds—do they need to focus on another task, rely on memory, or make decisions at the same time? Do they have any time constraints?

  • Task/task performance: What do they need to do? For example, make calls, send messages, etc. What does success and satisfaction with the task look like? 

  • Device(s): The OS, hardware, capabilities, etc.

  • Connection: Speed, network reliability, etc.

Contextual Model for Mobile beyond “On-the-Go”

Whitney Hess, an HCI designer and UX consultant, proposes a broader model of context for mobile devices and a hierarchy that links mobile to other devices available to a user. Instead of looking at devices from a location perspective (mobile is on-the-go, a desktop is at the desk, and a tablet is on a flight), we look at devices from the perspective of what the user wants to achieve.

“CONTEXT IS KING…the physical context of use can no longer be assumed by the platform, only intentional context can… 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.”

— Whitney Hess, in A List Apart

Illustration representing users' goals in different devices: smartphone—

© Whitney Hess, Fair Use

This model summarizes the difference between platforms. The mobile context is one of shorter interactions “checking” where you might dip in and out of a social network, seek an address or scan your e-mail but don’t want to do anything particularly complex.

The tablet is mainly a leisure device (though it has its enterprise context, too) and provides a chance to immerse in an experience without becoming overly interactive.

Finally, the traditional desktop/laptop platform is where people manage their overall experiences on(and off)line.

This contextual model is based on the user’s intentions rather than their physical location, and while there may be some shift between levels on each device, the main intent of each platform is clear.

How to Identify Context of Use?

The answer is research. Smartphone usage cuts across several barriers—physical and cognitive abilities, language, culture, and geographical boundaries, to name a few. Just as one size doesn’t fit all devices, one UX strategy doesn’t serve all communities. 

What do you need to know about an underrepresented community or users that are usually left out? For example: What do blind users need to navigate your page easily? IOS and Android devices have screen readers built-in, making it easier for blind people to interact with smartphones. So, remember that you will have blind users too, who rely on VoiceOver (on iOS) and TalkBack (on Android) to interact with your solutions.

Field studies will help you understand what else users do, their challenges, and how they usually confront them.

Screenshots of the Seeing Eye app and the Evelity app.

Did you know that blind users use a custom app for maps? The Seeing Eye GPS (left) is a fully accessible turn-by-turn GPS iPhone app with all the typical navigation features plus features unique to blind users. It highlights routes, points of interest and location. There’s even an app for navigating indoor spaces like venues. For example, the Evelity app (right) is an all-disability GPS indoor-wayfinding app.

© GoodMaps Inc and Okeenea Digital, Fair Use

Here’s a quick look at how a blind user interacts with an iPhone.

Another use case is if your app targets a non-local market. In that case, you will need to understand the cultural factors (national and regional nuances) and your audience’s cultural needs, constraints, and opportunities. You must localize your product. A simple translation is not enough for localization (i.e., to adapt an application for local contexts). Terms can get lost in translation—they can sound illogical or offensive. And, of course, there’s more to local contexts than language. You might need to tweak some features or introduce new ones according to the region.

Screendhots of the Uber app.

Uber’s vehicle offerings are tailored to suit the local markets. For example, users in India (right) can book an autorickshaw (a three-wheeled motor vehicle), which is not available in the US version of the application (left).

© Uber, Fair Use

The Take Away

Context of use for mobile is essential for getting mobile UX right. This is because mobile interaction changes physical, social, emotional, and cultural contexts. Knowing where, when, why, and under what conditions and constraints users interact with your app, or mobile content can give you direction for the design, layout, and overall positioning of your UX strategy.

References and Where to Learn More

To learn more about context of use for mobile, read Design Sketch: The Context of Mobile Interaction by Savio and Braiterman.  

Read Whitney’s definition of location agnostic and context specific mobile context

For a detailed look at accessibility, take the course Accessibility: How to Design for All.

Check out Frank’s short webinar on designing context-aware experiences.

Hero image: © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

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