InContext at 20
by Karen HoltzblattOctober 5th, 2012
20 years is a long time in the world of technology. When Karen started her initial work in Human-Computer Interaction, the interaction we were talking about was English-language command lines for the EVE editor at Digital Equipment Corporation. Most software at the time crunched numbers, filled in forms, or processed commands. EVE was revolutionary because you could see the text and then change it by telling it what to do in English.
How far we have come from then to now—first green screens, then WYSIWYG and drag and drop, then the world of Web-based information and applications, and now into the unbelievable world of mobility and touch and instant access to everything. And how far we have come from products that could only calculate results to products that let us create documents, slideshows, spreadsheets, and videos. And we’ve gone from filling in forms to creating content, and now to consuming information available to all via the Web. Where once the Xerox copier was the last word in information distribution, now information can be accessed and acted upon by workers across the enterprise. Consumers can now shop and buy from their homes. New businesses and new business models have been created and have become profitable.
But all that is trivial compared with what’s coming next—and what has actually arrived. Full-featured, connected technology is now being inserted into every aspect of our lives—our vehicles, airplanes, appliances, and our very persons via mobile devices. We are in the midst of a sea change in the impact of technology on our lives. We’re seeing a change as big as the one from green screens to the web—maybe bigger, because it will affect more people.
When we developed Contextual Design 25 years ago, we dreamed of changing the industry by helping to spread the adoption of user-centered design. Now, looking back, we are amazed and grateful that so many of our clients—and universities—have been guided by our work and our process. And we acknowledge the debt we owe them in teaching us what’s needed and what works in an industry context. Thank you to all who took up the flag of making things work for users, and thank you to all who thought our work could contribute to your success and skill!
Over the 20 years InContext has been in business, we have taught Contextual Design and inspired people to create their own repeatable user centered design processes. For 20 years, Classic Contextual Design and our work models have guided teams to create innovative products. No matter what new platforms came along, no matter what new tasks could be supported, no matter whether the activities were for work or for consumers, the basic process of Contextual Design held. The basic things we told you to look for in your customer data—the things that guided understanding the activities of the people you were trying to support—were the same, no matter the problem or the platform. This wasn’t because we were rigidly stuck on a single solution, but because the underlying understanding of what it meant for people to use technology was so robust. It was good for a generation.
But with the availability of mobile devices, their content and apps infused into the minutes of our lives, a new generation of technology has begun. Because technology can now impact our lives well beyond supporting the specific tasks we do, we must look anew at what is needed for a requirements and design process.
Our Cool Project revealed that we’ve entered a new world of challenges for product designers. People’s relationship to technology and the use of technology in their own lives has fundamentally changed. The Cool Project and the Cool Concepts reveal the new scope of what technology can affect and support: our core motives to make our lives work, our most important relationships, our expression of who we are, our identity, and simple fun must now be understood when designing any product. Understanding each task individually and supporting it in one application, on one platform will no longer be enough for success. And that means we need to understand more of people’s lives and motives than we ever had to before. “Good enough” user experience—and trading off the user experience to cram in additional function—will no longer be tolerated by customers, even in business applications.
So for the first time in over 20 years we need to revisit what teams need to do to understand customers. But luckily, the Cool Concepts give us a framework for defining what we need to know to design for success given the tsunami impact of the iPhone, tablets and other mobile devices.
Taking a step back, we know that the basic structure of Contextual Design still works. Going to the field to understand the world of the customers, interpreting the data as a team, consolidating the data to see the trends and issues and practices of a market, and visioning from that real grounded data—that basic approach still holds today. And the basic process of working out the detailed design and iterating it with users still works as well as it ever did (though we need new design principles and patterns to get it right for each platform—catch a session by David Rondeau, our design chair, to find out more about that).
But taking only a task focus during the field interviews and looking only at the current Contextual Design work models are not sufficient to understand a world where people move so rapidly from the focused work of the desktop to the on-the-go moments of activity on the phone—moments which may occur in the brief gaps in time while on the go. The existing models and the current structure of a Contextual Design field interview don’t help us capture the way tasks are woven into the time of life and how home and work is tightly intertwined. They don’t help us see core human relationships—and how collaboration has become quicker and more tightly bound to information and a core set of relationships while people move constantly from place to place. We don’t have a process to help us collect data on the subtle influences of identity, particularly professional identity. We don’t have good ways to get at what would be fun or delightful given the product domain.
Today, technology touches much, much more of core human motives, much more of everyday life, and people are much more likely to use technology continuously for all aspects of life all throughout the day. So it is natural that we need to revisit aspects of Classic Contextual Design, which was formed with a different focus: how to understand the context of tasks that would be done with stationary platforms operating on data that could only be accessed from within a single tool.
Thanks to our work understanding the origins of the cool user experience, we have discovered what is needed for successful product design today. And what we need is an even deeper understanding of people and the context of their lives. That means we need to change what we are looking for in the field—we need to add to the ways we engage with customers during a Contextual Inquiry. And we need new models to represent that data and new ways of using them for the purpose of stimulating ideation and design thinking.
So what is a Contextual Design process that will serve the industry for the next 10 or 20 years? We are inventing it today! We are developing new techniques for collecting field data, additional models to represent a wider spectrum of human experience, and design principles that help teams create products addressing the full scope of human experience and platforms that technology can affect today and in the future. Contextual Design as a requirements and design process has a timeless structure, but exactly what we need to be looking for in the lives of people today—and what we need to be designing into our products and apps—is radically shifting. And we will be there, making sure people know what they should do to get it right given today’s emerging technology.
So watch out! We are reinventing CD for the new age—and we look forward to bringing you with us on this new journey. Stay tuned for the next generation of Contextual Design!
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