How Does Contextual Design Address Usability Issues?

How Does Contextual Design

When designing a product, context is a vital consideration. It encompasses the environment in which users will use a product, their personal and work habits, and cultural norms. It also includes the way they organize tasks, which affects how and when they interact with a product. A full understanding of context allows a design team to create a product that fits seamlessly into the user’s life and fulfills their goals.

A popular methodology for gathering contextual information is the contextual inquiry interview. Unlike traditional question-and-answer interviews, contextual inquiries focus on the way the user works on a day-to-day basis in their natural habitat. The goal is to understand their mental model of the task, their motivations and strategy, as well as their frustrations and successes. This information is then interpreted by the design team to identify patterns and themes.

The key to a successful Contextual Design inquiry session is to avoid letting it become an airing of grievances. This usually happens when participants are prompted to provide feedback on the current system or software they use. This can result in the participant focusing on all of the ways that the existing system is flawed and not working as intended, which detracts from gaining valuable insights.

How Does Contextual Design Address Usability Issues?

Instead, a design team should redirect the conversation and ask questions about the way the user accomplishes tasks, how they work together, and the motivations behind their actions. This allows the design team to gain an in-depth understanding of how the system is used, rather than what it could be improved upon.

Ideally, the qualitative data collected by contextual inquiry should be augmented with quantitative techniques, such as surveys. The results of these data can help quantify the value of a product to customers and the company as a whole. They can also guide the trajectory of a project scope after conceptual sculpting has been completed.

Once the results of a contextual inquiry are analyzed, the design team can begin to visualize and develop prototypes for new product features. This is a critical step in the process because it ensures that the resulting product will actually be usable for users by the time it is released. This is a major difference from traditional prototyping, which often involves creating a product that is based on idealistic assumptions about how a new feature will be utilized in real-world usage.

Contextual Design is a method of human–computer interaction that was developed by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt in the 1980’s. It gained acceptance within the HCI community on a heretic-to-accepted-practice trajectory, and was described in detail in their 1997 book, Contextual Design.

The primary reason for the success of contextual design is that it focuses on understanding what people do, and why they do it. This method recognizes that people do not consciously think about their work practices, and therefore, much of this knowledge is tacit. By observing a person in their normal work environment, the design team can uncover the hidden rules and logic that underlie their behavior. This enables them to design products that will fit seamlessly into users’ lives by making use of their inherent work practice knowledge.

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