A user-centric interface should make the user feel as if you’ve read their mind. A smart and delightful interactive experience is as close to magic as technologically possible. This is accomplished by designing an experience that meets a user’s needs with little input required.
An effective strategy to create such an experience is contextual design. A context-aware user interface continually adapts to the ideal form by leveraging available data and anticipating user needs.
Contextual design presents the most relevant content and/or functions up front at all times. In doing so, the flow is controlled, taps/clicks are reduced, and both clutter and stagnant empty states are avoided. As soon as an app is opened, its purpose should be clear and the next step should always be obvious. Context-aware apps don’t sit and wait for user input before they come to life; they evolve with the user.
“Context-aware apps don’t sit and wait for user input before they come to life; they evolve with the user”
Contextual design can take many considerations into account, including but not limited to: the user and their role, the task at hand or the step in a process, the user’s location, the time and date, or the device being used (as identified by Kaltz et al.).
The relevant data and its ideal applications depend on the core objectives of your app. When designing a solution ask yourself the following exploration questions to determine what information may aid the experience:
Context-based solutions are commonly used to present content pointedly. For example, Netflix’s recommendation algorithm carries out an invisible process of data collection, categorization, and resolution that requires no action from the user. Taking it a step further, content that is recently paused is presented in forefront and users are encouraged to “continue watching” unfinished material. Netflix is ensuring that its users will not have to search or click through any barriers to access the content they are most likely to want.
Following a similar content suggestion model, Spotify creates a custom weekly playlist for each user based on their listening habits. Spotify also suggests playlists based on the time, date and the user’s location. A user can tune in regularly for a unique experience, only having contributed by using the service. These solutions are using context-awareness to create a personalized experience, reward the user for being active, and encourage further participation.
Context-sensitive designs can be used to solve a variety of product challenges:
Create a status dashboard that presents a clear call-to-action, tracks their progress, keeps them updated, gets their attention when time has passed and rewards them when they have finished.
Provide context-sensitive help. Tell them why they’ve encountered the error. Suggest solutions. Offer alternatives. Use the data you have to help them pass the barrier.
Sneak in an extra step in their journey. Shift their focus with a context-relevant prompt that won’t be dismissed as generic. A good example of this is the iOS app shortcuts that appear when you pass a Starbucks or your bank.
Users don’t always notice when you’re making their life easier, but if they are not thinking about the process then you’re probably doing a good job. In order to bring your product from good to great, you need a delight factor. It could be a cute illustration, a cool animation or a level of personalization they didn’t expect. I still remember opening the Yahoo Weather app for the first time and having an “Ooooo” moment at the photos of Toronto in the current weather condition. This was 3 years ago; that’s a lasting impression.
Now that I’ve sold you on contextual design from a user’s perspective, I need to warn you that it’s not effortless to get it right. The result should appear straightforward but designing and implementing these solutions are not. One of the first challenges you may run into is collecting the data. Permissions can create barriers for gaining access to the necessary data. Designers need to plan for all scenarios, including if there is no data to work with. It is important that the users with strict preferences can still have a functional, positive experience with the app and do not feel punished. When the data is available, analyzing the information and using it appropriately might require a complicated technical solution.
“It is important that there is enough consistency within the UI that the user does not get lost and can maintain familiarity with the app”
Contextual designs will require more screen states than a static interface would and there will most likely not be one “happy path”. This means more edge cases and more testing. The changing nature of these solutions presents some extra user experience challenges as well. It is important that there is enough consistency within the UI that the user does not get lost and can maintain familiarity with the app. Here are some things to keep in mind when designing a contextual solution:
Contextual design can be the foundation of your product or can just add a little something special. It can tell a story, personalize an experience, provide user support, or help your product meet a business objective. It may require some extra effort to design and develop but it will be worth it for every user to feel as if the app was designed for them.