SXSW 2012: Designing for Context

Andrew Crow
VP, Experience Design, GE

Ben Fullerton
Director, User Experience, Method

Leah Buley
Design Strategist, Intuit

Nate Bolt
Pres, Bolt|Peters

Ryan Freitas
Co-founder, AOL/

Presentation Description

As designers take on new problems of convergence and ubiquity, we find ourselves facing new challenges. The products we create are accessed through multiple devices, different channels and a wide audience. How do we accommodate the context of use?

Whether you design mobile apps, services or web experiences, you know that people have different needs and desires. Those issues are complicated further by a landscape of technology.

This discussion will highlight these new challenges and offer solutions based on years of design experience. Topics include:

  • What should you be aware of when designing a product or service for use in various locations and environments?
  • How does motion and distraction affect interaction and content design decisions?
  • Do you provide for casual use vs. urgent need?
  • How does the form factor or input method of your device steer your design efforts?
  • What happens in an ecosystem of products?
  • How does social and cultural context play into the strategy of your design?

Twitter Hash Tag: #DforC

Presentation Notes

In 1995 the Decision Theory and Adaptive Systems Group was created at Microsoft (Dr. Eric Horvitz) who thought they found out exactly when a user would become frustrated, hence the paperclip, which had very poor acceptance and was hated.

Context is the situation people are in when using products. These can be based on context, time, or the circumstances when the user is using the product.

What should we be aware of when designing for Context?


  • Designing interactions for different lengths or instances of time.
  • People are doing other things while using your products. Not only are people doing other things while using your product, they’re also turning your product off (or not using it) and then doing other things in the “real world” and then later come back to it (in-progress tasks).
  • Right “now” is an important time in which it is the best time to survey someone in how they are using your product, and what they’re doing while using it.
  • The context of time can change. For instance, what are the things that have to happen when you pull out your phone in a grocery line real quick compared to the things you have to do when you have hours to do something? What things are possible? What things are not possible?


  • Prioritizing one platform (such as developing a beautiful app on the iPad) and then making the other devices and website carry through the beautiful aspects of it.


  • How do we accommodate and embrace various locations?
  • If you’re designing an app that is used when you’re outside, make sure it isn’t dark as it’s hard to see with sunlight.

Form & Technology

  • What about screen size, input methods, technical constraints?
  • Intuit has their app SnapTax which allows you to take a photo of your W2 and it automatically populates the fields of your W2. However, and ironically, doing this via a photo takes actually longer than it does to just key-in your values. This aspect actually drives people to the app.

Brand and Relationships

  • How you feel about a brand is going to affect how you feel about their products and services.

What have we learned?

If you’re going to extend your existing product, make sure you break out the pieces of the product you really want and what are most important (1:1 mapping). You have to do the research, design well, and understand your audience.

Adopt a service design mentality to understand where people are intersecting on common needs.

Exposing the matrix. What do we know when we add and look at all the aspects? Well, just matrix those ideas out to find what works best.

Use research that doesn’t take a lot of time or money.

Posted in SXSW 2012.

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