In IA Thought, Information Architecture, What We're Reading

Understanding Context, the Book When anyone decides to put something into the world for others to use — a product, a service, or just communication — they add to the existing environment where people live. And it turns out, that results in a change of context, for everyone involved.

And when people experience that product, service, or communication, their interaction with it changes the context, too.

For quite a while, I’ve been pondering the challenges of context. It’s been a preoccupation in my career, and particularly in my work at TUG. Soon, these ponderings will be published in a new book called Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture, due to launch by the end of 2014.

Why a Book about Context?

The Internet (and everything it has spawned) has done more that anything else in history to complicate the contextual relationship between people and the world they live in. When a retailer adds an online “store” that also allows shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, what’s the context for shoppers who don’t yet know where or how they want to get a product?

When a social networking platform lets users post in what seems a private place, but it turns out that place has tunnels and windows to lots of public places, how could it have made that context more understandable? And when people increasingly depend on “the cloud” for all sorts of everyday infrastructure, what structures and rules are really at work in the cloud’s vaporous fog?

Understanding Context gets underneath these questions by figuring out how context works in user experiences. Here’s a description from the preface: “This book is about how information shapes and changes the way people experience context, in the products and services we design and build. It’s not only about how we design for a given context, but how design participates in making context. It begins with how people understand context in any environment. Then, it explores how language takes part in that understanding, and how information architecture helps to shape context and make it better.”

The Book’s Perspective

There’s a lot of good writing out there about designing “for contexts” or “the contextual experience”; it tends to focus on how to make the technology more responsive, smarter, and relevant to changes in location, mood, situation. These are excellent and worthy topics.

Understanding Context takes a different perspective on the topic, asking some underlying questions about what context is to begin with, how it changes when we introduce new factors, and whether “smart” technology is all that smart. It looks at the material of context — information, in its various modes — and asks how we mold it to make it work.

I stress the book is definitely using “understanding” as a verb. There are no sure-fire answers at this point. But there are good questions, models, and ways of thinking that can help us make context make more sense — for users, businesses, and everything else. Alas, it’s not a short read; it’s more like six small volumes bundled into one. But context is such a rich topic, I still feel I only scratched the surface.

Stay Tuned

Keep watching for more on this topic from TUG. My colleagues here, and the work we’ve done together, have been a big influence on the book; and TUG has been the best vocational home I could imagine while writing it. Context is complex, and not many consulting teams have the patience to dig into its challenges before jumping to solutions too quickly. TUG is definitely an exception.

I’ll be looking for opportunities to post content from the book here at TUG as things get more finalized, and after. Meanwhile, an “early release” e-book version is available at O’Reilly for any intrepid readers who don’t mind messy, pre-edited content (you get a final e-book when it’s done, though). While I’ve been sharing ideas from the book for quite a while now, I’m looking forward to doing even more of that in the months to come!

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