How Context Of Use improves Product Design and User Experience

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

“Context dictates the scale of people’s need. And people’s product experiences depend deeply on the context in which they’re used” (1)

While Use Cases and Edge Cases are the predominant tools used to anticipate and respond to UX and product design issues, Context of Use is often neglected or not given the attention it deserves.

Context of Use is about understanding and responding to “actual conditions under which a given artifact/software product is used”(2). For example, ease of use of a medical device may not be significant when a doctor uses it in a clinical setting but it can become significant if a home care support worker uses the same device at a patient’s home(4).

A single Use Case or Edge Case in different contexts can require vastly different approaches which has implications for usability, user acquisition, and user experience.

Copyright © 2018 Yuting Chu. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2018 Yuting Chu. All rights reserved.

For example, using Google Maps to find a way home in three different contexts will require three different approaches:

In Context A1, the user has low battery say 3% and is using Google Maps at 3am to find a way home via car or transit. In this Time and Urgency context, the priority for the user is speed and power conservation — upload destination and download the results ASAP before the battery dies. Downloading and causing the CPU to process unwanted traffic information, restaurant locations, pictures, etc., costs the user precious time and battery power which prevents the user from achieving his or her objective. Marketing and monetization data such as location history, personal data, and search history can be stored locally on the phone and uploaded later when the battery is recharged.

In Context A2, a smart phone’s roaming feature has been turned on for the sole purpose of helping the user find directions to a hotel, restaurant, conference centre, etc. Unfortunately, when a smart phone’s roaming feature is suddenly turned on, it begins to download every piece of data that has been queued. On my old phone, this can take up to 5minutes or longer depending on when I last used it. Needless to say, this can be time consuming and increases unnecessary roaming charges.

One way to address the user need in this Urgency Context of Use case is to create a prompt asking the user to select the desired Google Maps data(transit, car, restaurant data, etc.). In this way, user delight and the user objective is achieved with faster download(less data downloaded) as well as ensuring lower roaming charges.

Finally, in Context A3, the user is travelling in a location with poor reception or connectivity. Perhaps the subway or a camp site? Product Managers can design the app so that it will regularly analyze signal strength and take appropriate action. Upon sensing progressively poorer reception, the app can begin background downloading essential map data such as roads, cities, restaurants, and gas stations within a 30km radius onto the phone. Satellite imagery, restaurant reviews, and pictures, which would use up progressively worsening bandwidth, would not be downloaded.

The end result is that the user perceives an uninterrupted and seamless experience with the app anytime and anywhere regardless of cell phone reception and connectivity.

Giving attention to Context of Use, particularly Time of Day and Level of Urgency, can provide extra dimensions of usability and user experience that can be intentionally designed to maximize the delight of a diverse user population.

References and Resources:



  3. van der Bijl-Brouwer, M., & van der Voort, M. C. (2008). Designing for Dynamic Usability: Development of a Design Method that Supports Designing Products for Dynamic Use situationsDesign principles and practices, 2(1), 149–158.

  4. Beenkens, F., & Stolk, P.(2010). Context dependency of
    Medical Devices
    . Retrieved from World Health Organization


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