Importance of Context in Design

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” — Eero Saarinen

This quote is focusing on a rule that applies to design whether you are building a house or working on a software product. It highlights the importance of context in design. In fact, context is everything based on which you can design your product in a better way.

Consider an example of designing a chair. What information do you need when you are asked by your client to design a chair for them?

In addition to characteristics of the chair like type and material, an important question is to know about the context in which this chair will be used? Why the users need this chair? What do they want to achieve using this chair? If the chair will be placed in the outer garden, or if it is to be used for office work, or it is to be placed in the bedroom. After knowing the context in which your client is going to use the chair, it will become easier for you to decide about its design.

Similarly, you cannot design a room without thinking about the whole house and you cannot design a house alone without knowing about the area or environment or colony where you are going to build the house.

The context of a product is the circumstances or settings in which it will be used, and which adds meaning to its existence.

The same concept is applied to usercentered design.

A UX designer needs to know the broader vision of the product that is being designed. He needs to know who is going to use this product. What is its real usage and purpose that users want to achieve? And what is the environment in which this product will be used?

If we ask a designer to design a text editor, without knowing the information of the context in which this editor will be plugged-in and used, he cannot design a good experience. He needs to know whether this editor is an independent reusable component, or it will be used inside a Design editor. There would be more questions to clarify in both cases. After knowing the larger context of the text editor, he will start thinking about the experience he should design that will better help the user.

The quote also mentions one more thing, the next larger context, so what does it mean?

By considering a bigger picture or context does not mean that you should start over-thinking and go beyond the realistic approach. You cannot think about the context of the whole world while designing a chair.

There should be a limit to the context that you will consider while designing a feature. If you go to a deeper level, it would become difficult for you to handle a huge set of information and you will not be able to decide from where to start. So, it is good to go deeper into the next level or two and start designing the feature.

Design is communication and clear communication requires a common understanding of the problem we are solving. The context allows us to clarify the problem as well as the scope. If the context of users and designers is not the same, the end product will never satisfy the users.

I would love to know how the context information helps you to better understand the design problem and reach the desired solution.


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