Ultra-Contextual Design

by Abi Jones

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” Weiser 19911

Are you on the Internet right now? Is there a cable running from your phone or computer to a modem or a router? Probably not. Instead, you have Wi-Fi and a device that automatically connects with trusted networks at your home, your workplace, McDonalds, Starbucks, and the public library. Wi-Fi is so ingrained in modern life that it disappears into the background. And the only time you think about a Wi-Fi connection is when it isn’t working.

Every experience could blend into the aether and let me get on with life. Instead, video ads auto-play at full volume just when I thought I had my work computer muted, my “smart” coffee maker takes 10 steps to brew a new pot, and every new app download asks for information that I’m not sure I want to give up. I’m constantly bombarded with dumb experiences, but we can make them smarter with ultra-contextual design. Context-aware systems provide information and utilities to people based on the tasks they are trying to accomplish.2 Here’s how to get started:

Map the journey

The first step in creating a context-aware system is understanding the context for use. There are two levels for contextual understanding, the broad context for the user journey and the ultra-contextual aspects of each touchpoint within the journey. Start by analyzing the first level with a customer journey map, which at a minimum includes these elements:

  • The customer Who is the person accomplishing this task?
  • Activities What is this person doing or trying to do? What do they have to do?
  • Conditions What else is important to know about the context? This includes location,
    lighting, noise level, internet connectivity, and social situations (is this person alone or
    with friends?).
  • Motivations Why is a person doing this?
  • Touchpoints Where and when does someone interact with the system?
  • Questions Are there unanswered questions or needs that the customer has?
  • Data What else do we know about this journey that isn’t captured here?

Seek out pain points

Pain points in the journey map are opportunities for improvement, and places where contextual design can likely make a big difference in improving your customer experience. Any point in the activities portion of the journey that makes me slap my forehead serves as a good start for analyzing pain points. The ‘Questions’ component of a journey map is a prime location for uncovering issues.

When the team behind Disney’s Magic Band started their project, they focused on barriers to entering the Magic Kingdom, specifically using a drawing of a turnstile to signify a touchpoint that was painful rather than a joy.3 That turnstile experience set a negative the tone for the day and primed Disney World guests for a day of waiting in line. The team could have tried solving this problem with an app or a QR code, but instead they turned to sensors, embedding bracelets with high-powered radio frequency technology that could ease the process of entering the park, getting on rides, and ordering meals.4 Magic Bands helped Disney get rid of turnstiles and create a more inclusive, more accessible park entry experience for everyone.

Determine the type of contextual design that fits best

The toughest part of transitioning to context-aware design is using just enough sensor data to trigger information setting and actions. What does this mean in human language? It means letting computer systems do the hard work of determining context and acting on it. The actions a context-aware system takes can be categorized as:5

  1. presentation of information and services to a user; or
  2. automatic execution of a service

Presentation of information and services

In contextual presentation of information and services, the interface of the system changes based on the situation. With Google Now, a glance at my feed during lunch yields information about nearby cafes, while during my commute the feed prioritizes traffic information. Google Now uses my location, time of day, personal information about my home, and past habits and combines that information with the bigger picture of the commute to deliver context-sensitive information.

If you’re curious about contextual presentation in action, use GPS to navigate somewhere new and take an unscheduled right turn. The reguidance system in your device updates itself based on your brand new context, either rerouting you or asking you to turn around at your soonest convenience.

Automatic execution of a service

With context-triggered actions, a series of conditions are met and then a service kicks into gear. If you have a car with an anti-lock braking system (ABS), then you’ve probably experienced contextually-aware software that automatically executes a service. With ABS, a central electronic unit continuously monitors all four wheels of the car, and when one wheel is detected to be moving too fast or too slow compared to the others, individual brakes on each wheel compensate to create a safer driving situation.

For a context-aware system I can fit in my pocket, I turn to the Internet of Things, which is really just a series of contextual devices. When I get home this evening, my smart home hub will use my phone to detect my presence, turning on the lights for my front porch before I get out of the car, keeping me from fumbling with keys in the dark. If I wanted to take it a step further and avoid keys altogether, I could order Lockitron’s Bolt, a system that uses a smartphone phone as a presence beacon to lock or unlock the door to your house.

Your phone contains dozens of sensors and a few years from now, over 200 billion connected devices will be online. Are you ready to design for that?

2 Dey, Anind K. “Understanding and using context.” Personal and ubiquitous computing 5.1 (2001): 47
4 To see the FCC filing on Disney’s Magic Band, go to and enter the grantee code Q3E
5 Abowd, Gregory D., et al. “Towards a better understanding of context and context-awareness.” Handheld and ubiquitous computing. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 1999.

About the Author

Abi Jones is an interaction designer on the Search team at Google, focusing on the Knowledge Graph, a semantic network of over 570 million objects (and 18 billion related facts) representing the continually growing realm of human knowledge. You can follow Abi on Twitter at @jonesabi.

Strategic Approaches to UX Research

Intensive June 3-7, 2024 • Strategic UX Research is changing organizations. Get ready to change yours.

In five 90-minute sessions, explore how to connect your organization’s long-term direction and strategy directly to your customers’ and users’ deepest needs. Join us starting on June 3 and start leading your organization through this powerful, game-changing transformation.

Dive Into Our UX Research Intensive