How Does Contextual Design Support

As technology continues to morph at breakneck speeds, innovation is an imperative for any business. Contextual Design can support the development of innovative solutions by providing a process to help teams understand how people work, identify key problems to solve, and develop a vision of a new system that addresses customer needs.

Contextual Design combines the best of user-centered research and design with the structure and rigor of formal engineering processes, like Agile and FDD, to bring structure and discipline to the translation of user needs into design requirements. It also helps ensure that as parts of a new system are rolled out iteratively, engineering tradeoffs do not degrade usability.

Unlike traditional focus groups or UX interviews, Contextual Design interviews take place in the actual context of the work being performed. The interviewer joins the participant in their daily flow, observes them performing their work tasks, and works alongside them to draw and explain their working practice in detail. This active observation is where the technique gets its name, and it is at the heart of the process.

How Does Contextual Design Support the Development of Innovative Solutions?

The resulting work models serve as an invaluable source of information for the entire team, because they capture the work in detail and how it relates to existing systems, workflows, and the human–computer interface. The team can then use the work models to create a set of requirements for the new system. In the early stages, these requirements may be general, but they are intended to help define an approach to solving a core problem or satisfying a user need.

At this stage, the team can also use the work models to generate a rough prototype of the new user interface, to capture how the user will interact with the system. This is a critical step, because the user interface is one of the most difficult elements to get right in a new system, and it can make or break the overall product experience.

After the design and prototype phases, the team can use the work models and their resulting requirements to translate these into the detailed specifications of the system. These specifications will ultimately be used to produce the final product.

As the system evolves, the team can return to the user for guided testing to assess progress against the original goals and requirements. This is a great way to keep the design and development process on track, to verify that the work model and system requirements are still accurate, and to see how the system fits into the users’ daily workflow.

InContext has developed and refined these techniques over three decades of work with client teams. We have developed a unique understanding of how these tools can be applied to every phase of the design and development cycle. We have used these techniques to coach design and engineering teams, and to deliver market data and design ideas for products across scores of industries in many countries. Hugh Beyer is our lead design expert, with both technical and Agile know-how to help clients mesh often opposing points of view and build innovative solutions in any development environment.