Contextual Design as a User Interface Design Method

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What is Contextual Design?

Contextual Design is a User-Centered Design process that was developed by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holzblatt. It gathers information for the purposes of understanding how users work in order to create user interface designs (or other products) that adequately support users and assist them with accomplishing their goals. According to Beyer and Holzblatt, Contextual Design "uses extensive field data as the foundation for understanding user's and business' needs". It incorporates ethnographic methods for gathering data relevant to the product, field studies, rationalizing workflows, system and human-computer interface designs. The ultimate goal behind Contextual Design could be described as producing user interface designs that are usable for a specific group of target users, a critical factor in achieving product success.

Contextual Design is important to interface design

Just like with many other products and services, contextual design is vitally important to user interface design. Successful UI (user interface) designs are the ones that help users accomplish tasks as easily and quickly as possible, and that requires some work on the UI designer's part. Contextual design is all about knowing which functions and features and design characteristics are needed to accomplish that. It gives designers the ability to comprehend the context in which users employ a specific user interface. Taking the time out to conduct research and identify with user contexts is intended to give user interface designers the knowledge required which they can then fashion into wireframes on the road to creating great user interface designs.

The Contextual Design sequence

In the first post on Contextual Design we clarified what Contextual Design is and why it is important for creating usable UIs.  Now it is vital that we discuss how the Contextual Design process occurs. Contextual Design is a process that happens sequentially in the following hierarchical steps: Contextual Inquiry, Interpretation, Data Consolidation, Visioning/Storyboarding, User Environment Design, and Prototyping. Each of these steps is equally important in contributing to the synergy of the Contextual
Design process and buttresses the resultant user interface design in a positive user experience.

•  Contextual Inquiry: Contextual Inquiry is the crux of Contextual Design. It is used to reveal what people actually do and why they do it that way. Contextual Inquiry happens at the very beginning of the design process and calls for one-on-one field interviews observing subjects in their natural working or living environment doing what they would normally be doing.

•  Interpretation: The interpretation phase is when the data from all the interviews is analyzed and detailed work models are created in order to ascertain context of use and aspects of work that matter for the user interface design team. What matters here is looking at the interviews from a macro birds-eye-view level for key insights across the board.

•  Data Consolidation: Data consolidation is the level at which individual interviews are analyzed. An example of a good method of processing observations from a bottom-up design approach (piecing together systems to give rise to grander systems) for data consolidation purposes is by making affinity diagrams.

•  Visioning/Storyboarding: Visioning is akin to brainstorming, but distinctly it is the gathering of a cross-functional team in order to create stories or visions of how new product concepts, services, and technology can better support a user in accomplishing her tasks. After determining key issues and opportunities from the consolidated data, the visioning team sets out to generate new concepts by way of scenarios of use. These visions are then fleshed out further through the use of Storyboarding.

•  User Environment Design: User Environment Design is the stage of Contextual Design whereby the stories created begin to become more refined in terms of product and system requirements. What are the different parts of the system? What functions are available in each part? How do all these components support and enhance a user's work?  Where in the user interface design scheme should they be integrated? User Environment Design seeks to answer these questions.

•  Prototyping: Prototyping is an efficient way of creating preliminary partially functional UIs that can be used to test the structure of a User Environment Design for usability issues. But prototyping is also great as a communication tool for stakeholders of a project to flesh out user interface design ideas. Prototyping can be done through the use of paper prototypes (hand drawn or printed out) or, better yet, through interactive wireframe prototypes.

Performing these steps is an art of itself but can be immensely helpful in creating superior UI designs.

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Contextual Design as a User Interface Design Method

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This article was published on 2010/11/04