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

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.

Learn More About Contexts of Use

Overview of context in design  @ 

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) @

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 Human-Computer Interaction: The Foundations of UX Design .

Interactions between products/designs/services on one side and humans on the other should be as intuitive as conversations between two humans—and yet many products and services fail to achieve this. So, what do you need to know so as to create an intuitive user experience? Human psychology? Human-centered design? Specialized design processes? The answer is, of course, all of the above, and this course will cover them all.

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) will give you the skills to properly understand, and design, the relationship between the “humans”, on one side, and the “computers” (websites, apps, products, services, etc.), on the other side. With these skills, you will be able to build products that work more efficiently and therefore sell better. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the IT and Design-related occupations will grow by 12% from 2014–2024, faster than the average for all occupations. This goes to show the immense demand in the market for professionals equipped with the right design skills.

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In the “Build Your Portfolio: Interaction Design Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises that will give you first-hand experience of the methods we’ll cover. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you’ll create a series of case studies for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

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