SXSWi 2012: Designing for Context

This all-star panel formed a great start to SXSWi 2012, on the all important topic of context and why it is critical to the design process. The crew outlined 5 key themes to consider, and highlighted personal examples to showcase these themes.

Panel speakers:
Andrew Crow – VP Experience Design at GE (@AndrewCrow)
Ben Fullerton – Director of Interaction Design at Method (@benfu)
Leah Buley – Design Strategist at Intuit (@ugleah)
Nate Bolt – of Bolt Peters UX (@boltron)
Ryan Freitas – Cofounder of (@ryanchris)

The hashtag: #DforC
Notes and slides below.

Context is affected by location, time, multiple use cases, people – to name a few.

How do we research and design for context that doesn’t lead to hypothetical answers?

Designing for difficult contexts

The panel first some of the most difficult types of contexts they have designed for.

Ben could not disclose the work he was working on. But mentioned the difficulty was, due to the highly private nature of the work, designing based on pure generalisations of people and trying to form meaningful experiences based on little knowledge.

Andrew described a project he worked on at Adaptive Path for astronauts in space, and recounted the odd environments they were dealing with: zero gravity, cosmic radiation that would fry the electronics of devices.

Leah described her work less “glamorous”, like, designing a mobile app that people use to check their finances whilst on the toilet.

Mobile first vs. Browser first

The panel discussed that there is a vogue for mobile first now – but questioned what happens when you develop for browser first.

They discussed that there are opportunities to see what behaviours arise in browser first. Moving into mobile, they had to figure out what behaviours were appropriate in the mobile context, and prioritise them.

Some in the panel believed that you don’t need to map the existing experience across to mobile. It becomes an ecosystem rather than having redundant system.

The example used was, which began as browser first, and the mobile version was not a direct one to one mapping.

Five themes when designing for context


Time affects every interaction we design. Interactions can range from a long term engagement or short term, to snackable. What affordances do we need to build in?

Leah spoke about the luxurious belief that people don’t get interrupted. The reality is, users go away, live real life and come back. The experience isn’t always chronological. She describe designing from micro moments through to crazy long timelines with legacy products.

The NY Times example
For the NY Times redesign project they didn’t want to tackle personas in the usual way, as they felt personas did not give enough information about the true context of the user.

What they did was intercept users when they are in the middle of usage – intercepting different contexts, and presenting open ended questions. They watched people live, in the moment, watching them type their responses.

What was great about this was that they were getting in the participant’s timeline.

NOW is an important time in the timeline

When breaking down a complicated experience, nothing should be held as sacred.

As we engage with products over time, our relationship with the product changes.
We can outgrow products, or products can grow into product suites.


We can’t design for one product anymore. We need to be aware of how it integrates in different ecosystems, even competitive ecosystems.

In work done for the Teaching Channel, Method has to understand all of the other activities teachers had to engage in to truly form an understanding of the time pressures on teachers and how these activities related to the site they were building.

In work for Mint, Intuit was looking at bringing their product from web native to the mobile context. In thinking about their mobile users, they realised that they could not just assume that people were hitting ALL
touch points in the ecosystem. Sometimes you can’t just scale down the features for mobile. What if mobile is the only face they are interacting with?

Furthermore, the work done for the iPad was very visually striking, and it forced the team to retrofit the others products they had. If you start designing well for one arm of the ecosystem, you have to consider its effects on other systems.

The panel then discussed startups, who often don’t have budgets to do field research.
For Rdio, they looked at combining different methods – guerilla research style.
They conducted quick and casual research with 50 people with a task to gather insights.
They then took 5 people and gave them task a bit more formal
They then used online UT system. Sometimes even got people to hold their device up to webcam.
What this accomplished was they could get a little more concrete picture and a bit of data for very little money.


How do we accommodate and embrace various locations?
Thinking about location helps provide a frame of reference of external factors.

For Victoria’s secret, the iPad and iPhone app ended up being two completely different apps because the target audience had two different needs and reasons for engaging with the products and the with the brand.
No one brings their iPad to the store, but they bring their phone with them. The mobile app works in
context with the location of the store. Users could cnapshot the UPC code and get more info about the product including stock info and more info on the product.

At Intuit they exposed other ways to think about location through an app that enables accountants to look up tax info on the go. Mobility in this case was just around the office – walking from one desk to another.

This is where service design tools are very useful for IXD as it exposes opportunities for design.

Streaming a field observation live is an incredible way to get clients or the team to get
engaged. Live action gets people excited!

Generally: consider legibility of designs when outside a lit room and in the environment it is going
to be used in.

Form and Technology

What about screensize, input methods, and technical considerations?

Leah spoke about the Turbo tax – Snap Tax app, where you can take a photo of your tax and it will input all the relevant fields in the form for you.Though it actually takes longer to snap photo of your tax than inputting it, the wow factor of the form factor made this route appealing for users. They still offered both methods of either manual input or taking a photo.

How can you come up with ideas to make the most of the form/technology?
1. Make a list of features
2. Make a list of inbuilt capabilities of the new device
3. Look at the intersection of these two lists and brainstorm the ways you can use the intersection.

Brand and Relationships

How you feel about a brand affects how you feel about using the product.
When you have a brand that wants to establish an equitable relationship, you have the potential for really meaningful experiences.

Key Learnings

  • If you’re going to extend your existing product, how do you breakout pieces of the experience you want and make it appropriate? Don’t try and just replicate the experience from one context, but consider one on one
  • Explore a service design mentality, and this will help you figure out whether people may
    be coming through only one device. Especially if people only use your product in one context.
  • Exposé the matrix. How do these contexts all overlap? Think about the opportunities at these intersections.
  • Find quick and easy ways to get on the user’s timeline.

The Slidedeck – from