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Contexts of Use

Your constantly-updated definition of Contexts of Use and collection of topical content and literature

What are Contexts of Use?

One of the key focal points of user-centered design is the contexts in which the designs will be used. For technology products and services, contexts of use include a potentially broad array of factors – physical and social environments, human abilities and disabilities, cultural issues and similar.

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Contexts describe the actual circumstances of use. While not all of the aspects mentioned above apply in each case, it is important to consider what is and isn’t relevant. For example, almost all products and services operate within a legal context that requires them to be operable by people with disabilities. Other legal contexts govern the use of personal data – the GDPR in Europe, for instance – the ages for which certain content may be shown, along with strict laws in some locations around gambling and betting.

Environmental and physical contexts may not be particularly relevant to most websites, but this can change dramatically for systems used outside the typical home or office. Examples include external Automated Teller Machines (“cash machines” or “cash dispensers”), computing systems used in farming – some of which must be steam cleaned – and systems used for stock control in unheated warehouses or, more challenging still, cold stores.

ATM (cash dispense), sited outdoors.

Cash dispensers are a common example of an unusual context of use. They have to cater for a wide range of users – short, tall and in wheelchairs – as well as variations in lighting and weather.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Warehouse worker scanning bar codes with portable reader.

Desktop computers are not always an appropriate solution. Here a warehouse worker scans stock using a portable reader and tablet.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

How to Define Contexts of Use

User research and observation is essential to determine context of use. The goal of these processes, which include contextual interviews, user visits, etc., is to answer key questions such as the ones suggested by the leading UX consultancy Experience Dynamics:

  • Where do your users engage with your product or service? (physically, environmentally, device-specific)

  • What is happening to the user when they are using it? (social or emotional influences)

  • What is physically or socially preventing users from completing their tasks? (e.g., another party or person has to act first)

  • When does usage happen and what triggers it? (timing and coordination)

  • What expectations do users bring to the task? (mental model)

  • Why do users want to do this before that? (workflow, motivation, flow)

  • What makes sense to users and why does that differ from how you think about it? (content, labeling, problem-solving)

Contexts of Use in HCI

In user-centered and user experience design, one of our main concerns is usability. The international standard on the ergonomics of human-system interaction (see Learn More About Contexts of Use) defines usability as

“…the extent to which a system, product or service can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.”

Notice that the very definition of usability depends on the context of use. This isn’t hard to understand outside of software systems. But because contexts of use are outside of the normal considerations in most software development methods, contexts are usually overlooked.

The standard goes on to describe the components:

“The context of use comprises a combination of users, goals, tasks, resources, and the technical, physical and social, cultural and organizational environments in which a system, product or service is used.”

This is a much broader definition of contexts than is used in practice, but it is complete. Less formal definitions tend to group users, goals, tasks and resources separately from the environments as described above. However, the benefit of grouping all of these elements together becomes obvious when considering how the standard describes achieving usability in design and development. The steps are:

1.    Understand and specify the context of use.

2.   Specify the user requirements including usability considerations.

3.   Produce design solutions making use of the above.

4.   Evaluate the design solutions.

When referring to a complete system, the context of use would include all users along with their respective goals, tasks and the required resources as well as the environmental contexts across all of those factors. These include

  • Technical environment – equipment and applications, including hardware, furniture; information (data the users have access to) relevant to the tasks; support services, either human- or system-based (such as assistive technology).

  • Physical environment – where the system will be used and what the environmental factors would be (consider the warehouse, farm or cold storage examples earlier).

  • Social, cultural and organizational environment – other people involved (such as stakeholders) and the relationships between them, the organizational structure, language, legislation, cultural norms and values, work practices, group working and privacy.

Contexts of Use in Mobile

The context of mobile use is very different from that of desktops. In this video, the founder of Experience Dynamics Frank Spillers 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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Researchers Savio and Braiterman introduced the “overlapping spheres of context” to a mobile user’s context that included:

  • Personal goals (such as identity, status, and social interaction).

  • Attention levels (complete or partial, intermittent or continuous).

  • Tasks (for example, make calls, send a video, or get directions).

  • Device constraints (including, among other things, software, sensors, battery and network).

  • Secondary activities (such as walking, eating, etc.).

  • Environment (sound, light, space, etc.).

  • Culture (economics, religion, law, etc.).

Mobile users’ context of use is much more complex than that of desktop users. Savio and Braiterman introduced the “overlapping spheres of context” to illustrate this complexity. As a designer, you must consider users’ personal goals, attention levels, tasks, device constraints, secondary activities (such as walking, eating, etc.), environment (sound, light, space, etc.) and culture (economics, religion, law, etc.).

© Nadav Savio and Jared Braiterman, Fair-Use

Mobile experiences that factor in the context of use will be more likely to be successful than designs that are made for a generic audience with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Learn More About Contexts of Use

Find here a research study into contexts of use and user experience.

Detailed article on the role of contexts of use in usability (PDF).

Ergonomics of human-system interaction (book, ISO 9241-11).

Take our course: Mobile UX Design: The Beginner's Guide.

See Nadav Savio and Jared Braiterman’s original paper about the context of mobile interaction at Academia: Design sketch: The context of mobile interaction.

Nick Babich offers comprehensive and practical recommendations for designing mobile experiences in a Guide To Mobile App Design at UX Heuristics.

To learn about the differences between context of use and ease of use, read the How to explain Ease of Use vs Context of Use to your boss article by Frank Spillers.

Literature on Contexts of Use

Here’s the entire UX literature on Contexts of Use by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Contexts of Use

Take a deep dive into Contexts of Use with our course Mobile UX Design: The Beginner's Guide .

In the “Build Your Portfolio” project, you’ll find a series of practical exercises that will give you first-hand experience with the methods we cover. You will build on your project in each lesson so once you have completed the course you will have a thorough case study for your portfolio.

Mobile User Experience Design: Introduction, has been built on evidence-based research and practice. It is taught by the CEO of ExperienceDynamics.com, Frank Spillers, author, speaker and internationally respected Senior Usability practitioner.

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