Here at AnswerLab, we are frequently approached by organizations who want to take a successful website or desktop application and create a complimentary mobile or tablet application. There are a number of fairly obvious usability issues to consider when “going mobile.” Mobile and tablet devices have smaller screens than desktops and the keypads are typically harder to use. Buttons must be resized and data entry flows reconsidered. Usability testing is a great method to provide actionable insights on how to make these mobile applications easy to use.

But the most successful mobile and tablet applications are not just streamlined versions of the original site or application. One frequently ignored differentiator of desktop and mobile applications is context. If your users are turning to your desktop application first thing in the morning at work and your tablet application at the end of the day with their legs kicked up on the sofa, they are going to have different wants and needs. And those differences go beyond minor usability issues.

We believe the who, what, when, and where of product use have just as big an impact on overall user experience as the how. And our dedication to understanding context is not limited to mobile environments. You may have a beautiful website loaded with all the perfectly executed features imaginable, but if your users are crunched for time, all those bells and whistles are just going to get in the way and create some seriously frustrated users.

So how do you identify user context and incorporate it into the design of your products? Here are a few research approaches we recommend to do just that:

  • Ethnography. If there is a lot to learn about your users’ contexts, ethnography is a great place to start. With ethnographies, we observe users in their natural contexts of use—at home, in the office. We even conduct mobile ethnographies, observing users’ interactions with mobile devices as they are on the go. Ultimately, the goal of an ethnography is to provide a rich understanding of users’ contexts, needs, and wants. Identifying users’ contexts of use is the first step in the process of developing an excellent user experience.

AnswerLab Ethnography Salon Visit

  • Field testing. Once you have a clear understanding of users’ contexts of use, the next step is often studying the use of your product in context. And if you want to understand users’ interaction with your application in context, what better way is there to do so than to go to the very place they use it? We have conducted studies in cafes and in stores, anywhere that we can ensure an authentic experience, complete with all the motivations and distractions of natural use. With field testing we might find your mobile store locator application requires one data input too many, for example, or your customer relationship management system fails to integrate smoothly into employees’ daily workflows. By understanding how users interact with products in action, we can identify new areas of opportunity and recommend specific strategies to meet users’ needs.
  • Lab testing. There are a number of obvious benefits of testing in the lab. Lab testing allows for strict experimental control, complicated technical set-ups, and testing of prototypes that aren’t ready for the field. But while there are many clear benefits of lab testing, the benefits for studying the impacts of context are not as obvious. One of the reasons that lab testing is a valuable methodology for studying context is that it allows us to induce context. Let’s say we have learned from ethnographies and field tests that at the time your users turn to your product, they are frustrated, or rushed. In the lab, we can induce emotions and create contexts. We can induce a sense of urgency by offering a reward for completing a task quickly. We can induce frustration, happiness, and boredom. Inducing context in the lab allows us to reap the research benefits of a controlled environment while ensuring the findings apply to real users in action.

These are just a few of the research strategies that allow us to identify user context and understand the impact of context on use. Designing products without considering context can create terrific user experiences…for someone else’s users. By thinking about context throughout the product life cycle, you can create products that meet users’ needs and keep them coming back.