The Contexts We Make

I’ve been presenting on this topic for quite a while. It’s officially an obsession. And I’m happy to say there’s actually a lot of attention being paid to context lately, and that is a good thing. But it’s mainly from the perspective of designing for existing contexts in the world, and accommodating or responding appropriately to them.

For example, the ubicomp community has been researching this issue for many years — if computing is no longer tied to a few discrete devices and is essentially happening everywhere, in all sorts of parts of our environment, how can we make sure it responds in relevant, even considerate ways to its users?

Likewise, the mobile community has been abuzz about the context of particular devices, and how to design code and UI that shapes the experience based on the device’s form factor, and how to balance the strengths of native apps vs web apps.

And the Content Strategy practitioner community has been adroitly handling the challenges of writing for the existing audience, situational & media contexts that content may be published or syndicated into.

All of these are worthy subjects for our attention, and very complex challenges for us to figure out. I’m on board with any and all of these efforts.

But I genuinely think there’s a related, but different issue that is still a blind spot: we don’t only have to worry about designing for existing contexts, we also have to understand that we are often designing context itself.

In essence, we’ve created a new dimension, an information dimension that we walk around in simultaneously with the one where we evolved as a species; and this dimension can significantly change the meaning of our actions and interactions, with the change of a software rule, a link name or a label. There are no longer clear boundaries between “here” and “there” and reality is increasingly getting bent into disorienting shapes by this pervasive layer of language & soft-machinery.

My thinking on this central point has evolved over the last four to five years, since I first started presenting on the topic publicly. I’ve since been including a discussion of context design in almost every talk or article I’ve written.

I’m posting below my 10-minute “punchy idea” version developed for the WebVisions conference (iterations of this were given in Portland, Atlanta & New York City).

I’m also working on a book manuscript on the topic, but more on that later as it takes more shape (and as the publisher details are ironed out).

I’m really looking forward to delving into the topic with the attention and breadth it needs for the book project (with trepidation & anxiety, but mostly the positive kind ;-).

Of course, any and all suggestions, thoughts, conversations or critiques are welcome.

PS: as I was finishing up this post, John Seely Brown (whom I consider a patron saint) tweeted this bit: “context is something we constantly underplay… with today’s tools we can now create context almost as easily as content.” Synchronicity? More likely just a result of his writing soaking into my subconscious over the last 12-13 years. But quite validating to read, regardless 🙂

I’m pasting the SlideShare-extracted notes below for reference.


1. THE CONTEXT PROBLEM A 10 Minute ‘Punchy Idea’ WebVisions | NYC | 2012 Andrew Hinton [Macquarium]| @inkblurt
2. Where are you, right now?
3. To us in the room, you’re ‘here.’ online room To people online, you’re ‘here.’So where are you right now? just think about that a second.>>To those of us in the room we look over and see you’re here. With us in the room.>>But on Twitter, or instant messenger, or facebook — wherever else you’re communicating atthe moment — you’re “there”This isn’t just an idle thought. These words matter because they indicate the way wecognitively comprehend reality.
4. Where is “here” in this tweet?Check out this tweet … “I’m here. Is anybody here?”How do you interpret this question?Where is “here” here? She could have arrived at a restaurant and is asking if her friends arethere yet. Or she could be asking if anyone she knows is looking at Twitter at the moment.Notice I referred to even the statement as “here” — as if it’s a place. “Let’s look at what thisperson is saying ‘here’”
5. Reality hacking. Context “Fountain” | Marcel Duchamp ~ 1917Recognize this?>> This was named by art experts as the most in?uential work of art of the 20th century.Not because of its beauty, but because it signaled & partly catalyzed a rift in how we thinkabout culture. Duchamp and friends grabbed a urinal and signed it with a fake artist’s name,and entered it in an art show. It didn’t get in — but then they publicized the “injustice” ofbeing rejected so widely it became famous, and started conversations about what the natureof art really is. Who decides it?>> And it was all done by adding a bit of language to an object. By changing its context.>> It’s a sort of reality hacking. Why?
6. flickr – uicdigitalInformation changes how we experience the physical.Because information changes how we experience the physical world.Look at this photo — there’s information everywhere in this scene.>>The lines on the road tell us where to drive; the traffic light is a virtual barrier that affectsour behavior; the road signs give us a layer of instruction that adds meaning to the cityaround us. without the information here, it would quite literally be a different place.
7. flickr – aokkone More pervasive; more immersive.Now look at today.When you’re using a GPS, where are you driving?Your brain merges the information from the device with what you’re seeing in the windshield.They become essentially the same.So now we’re in even richer information environments.
8. More pervasive; more immersive.In fact, research is happening now to actually increase the detail & realism the informationdimension for drivers.
9. Information makes places, kind of like this picture makes a pipe. If you could smoke the pipe.This is the famous Magritte painting — it says “this is not a pipe”The picture de?nitely shows a pipe but it’s not a real pipe you can smoke.>>Information is kind of like this in the way it makes places.>>Except for a key difference that, withInformation, you can smoke the pipe.
10. photo: died.htmlRecognize this? It’s a home-made dungeon for Dungeons & Dragons.This is an information environment — but it’s only barely part of the physical world. It’s alljust information. But we experienced it as feeling very real, with real consequences andmeaning with our peers.Ok whatever — that’s D&D. Can’t take that seriously right?
11. US Constitution Some immersive information frameworks aren’t physical at all. archives.govWhat about this?How is this all that different from a D&D ruleset?Some people got together and wrote an information artifact, just words on pages, but it’s theframework the United States has existed within for over 2 centuries.Information is real, and it creates contexts that can have powerful effects on the reality welive in.
12. “Beacon” “Buzz”Which is why people get so upset when some of the places they live in suddenly change theirrules. Without representation, without explanation.What did these two platforms get so wrong?They assumed that, just because the environments they created were digital — informational– the rules of physical social context didn’t apply. They oversimpli?ed or ignored some verycomplex things about how people really live.They treated these designs as software engineering solutions, rather than life solutions.
13. “Friend?”For example, they warped what the word ‘friend’ means.Sure, it’s just language.But used as an entity in a relational database, behind a massive platform where millions ofpeople conduct big, meaningful slices of their lives … it becomes more than just a word.It becomes architecture.
14. In the information dimension, language is architecture.In the information dimension, language is architecture.
15. vs flickrcom – shimonkey – anirudhkoul Obvious difference.For example, in physical space, there’s an obvious difference between a little nook in the corner of a room where you canwhisper to someone, and a stage in front of thousands of people where a microphone will announce what you say to all of them.Whisper image CC http://? image CC http://?
16. D vs @ flickrcom – shimonkey – anirudhkoul Not so obvious.But on Twitter, all it takes is D vs @ to make that difference. It changes from requiring a big, physicalchange to a tiny alphanumeric slip.The information environments we’re creating are littered with these dangerously thin barriers betweencontexts.Whisper image CC http://? image CC http://?
17. We’ve always lived in language. abcdefghijklmn opqrstuvwxyz abcdefghijklmn opqrstuvwxyz Map = Territory Now we live in software. photo:’ve always lived in language — since the earliest beginnings of civilization, it’s been partof what makes us people.>> But now we also live in software, which is language made into architecture. Places weinhabit.>> The map has become the territory.So, in a weird way, the D&D geeks won … we all live in their dungeons now.
18. Existing Context online room The Context we design.We aren’t just designing for existing contexts anymore.We are designing the context itself.And the more that information dimension pervades our physical space …
19. What we make for the “screen” changes the world “outside the screen.” Existing Context room online The Context we design.The more we’re actually designing all human context.>>What we make for the screen changes the world outside the screen.
20. Actually, we’re turning the world into the “screen.”Actually, we’re turning the world into the screen.
21. We don’t fully understand what we have wrought.I don’t think we really understand what we have made. We keep going as if everything we dowith this technology just has to be great, but we end up making mistakes and wondering howwe screwed up.
22. So what do we do?
23. Be aware of, and understand, the problem.The ?rst step is just to be aware of the problem. I think this is an area of design that wehaven’t fully come to grips with yet. So let’s keep working on that.
24. Task Task Need Cognitive Physical Situation Task Task Need Need Emotional Task Task Task Task “Scenario”It all comes back to understanding the whole person, and the whole contextual situation inwhich they live and where their needs come from.>>We have to be careful that we’re not so focused on the individual task we’re designingfor …>> That we ignore the incredible ripple effect it has, and how it alters the reality that personis living in.
25. Punching, complete.[ | @inkblurt]

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at

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