Why test your product in the ‘context of use’?

27th September 2016
Posted by in Brain Bites: 2 Minute Insights

Firstly, what is the ‘context of use’?

It’s an obvious thing to say but people don’t live in a vacuum; they’re subject to all sorts of influences which can affect their experience of using products.

These influences can come from a variety of sources, e.g.:

  • The physical environment (e.g. ambient temperature and light levels)
  • Social settings (e.g. are they working alone or in a team? What are the social norms?)
  • The technical environment (e.g. is WiFi available?)
  • Commercial and legal requirements (e.g. what procedures have to be followed?)

All of the things that affect someone’s usage of a product can be defined as the ‘context of use’.


Thinking about context is essential

The context(s) of use that people find themselves in can have a large say in whether they are able to complete the task at hand. I’m sure many of us have been in situations where our own context has seriously hampered our ability to perform seemingly simple tasks. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Struggling to read the information on an ATM display because of the blazing sunshine that’s reflecting off the screen
  • Panicking that you’ll miss your train to work because the queue for the ticket machine is unusually long
  • Being unable to watch a YouTube video in a busy coffee shop because everyone else is on the WiFi network

If the various contexts in which people find themselves aren’t considered in the design process, new products may be unusable. Understanding the context of use is so important, it’s even mentioned in the international standard definition of usability (that we and a lot of other user centred design professionals use), which says that usability is:

The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.’ (ISO 9241-11)

So, when it comes to testing your new/existing product to understand its usability, how can you effectively take into account the impact that the context of use has on your customers? Context-based research may well be the answer you’re looking for.


What are the challenges?

There are a number of challenges to overcome when doing contextual research, which may help explain why people tend to prefer testing products within usability labs. These issues include:

  • There is less control over the various contextual factors which will influence a person’s experience of using a product, making it harder to understand the influence of a product’s design on the usage experience
  • Getting access to participants at the right time/location can be tricky, e.g. gaining permission to watch medical operations
  • It can be difficult to observe someone interacting with a product without being obtrusive and stopping them from acting naturally
  • It can be harder for project stakeholders to observe test sessions, unless video footage is captured
  • It can be more expensive, as it may involve travelling far and wide to observe people in their own environments

However, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom when it comes to contextual research…


What are the benefits?

Despite the issues listed above, it has to be decided if the factors which make up the context of use will have such an influence on the usage of a product that testing in a lab just won’t provide enough insight into its usability.

If conducting usability testing within the actual context of use is decided as the way forward, there are a number of benefits to be had, e.g.:

  • You can see the influence of the actual usage context on someone’s experience of a product and better understand how to take account of contextual factors in the product’s design
  • You can interview people in situ so can get more natural and representative feedback
  • The researcher can also experience the customer’s context(s) of use so can be better informed when creating ideas for improving your products, e.g. foreseeing issues that may arise if a given design change is implemented
  • You can have greater confidence in your product’s usability (and value) when it gets released to market

As with every research approach, there are pros and cons. However, we’ve worked on a number of recent projects which involved visiting the places where our target audiences go to. This approach gave us insights that we wouldn’t have got via any other way and helped reinforce to ourselves and our clients the benefits of contextual research.

If you want to know more about how best to conduct context-based research please get in touch.

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We are psychologists, interaction and design experts, researchers, usability specialists. We cover Web, software, mobile, print, service design and more.
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