The Science of UX, Part 4: Content Is No Longer King, Context Is

A blog series by Drory Ben-Menachem, Creative Director, with special thanks to contributing editor, Adam Michel

While researching this blog series, I was reminded of Martin Heidegger’s belief that understanding the experience of using a thing depends on the context of its use – a phenomenon he calls “being-in-the-world.”  Heidegger’s use of the word “being” implies active involvement (rather than static location or presence) and he defines “world” as all the unspoken guidelines informing one’s involvements.

He distinguishes “seeing” from “understanding”, in that mere observation of a thing is an insufficient means of gleaning true understanding. For example: we see a table as a slab of hard, flat material suspended horizontally above the floor via one or more vertical supports; but we experience the table as a gathering place for family meals, or a work surface, or a child’s creative space.  Our understanding of “table” is defined or altered by our active involvement with it and the contextual value it adds to our “world”.

Heidegger further theorizes that this contextual bias even influences our interactions with the world around us, not just our understanding of it – to quote, “I am what I care most about”.  It explains why the same content or experience will affect users differently.  It also explains the phenomenon of “ad blindness”, wherein users only become truly aware of a marketing message when they are contextually “in market” to receive the message.  So too, for apps and websites.  Successful UX and design efforts will incorporate this sense of contextual relevance into their solutions, tapping into a meaningful extrinsic or intrinsic response and allowing for a more personal investment of the experience on the part of the user.  In theory, it’s what makes social channels like Facebook so habitual – it feeds contextually relevant content to you on a regular basis based on your individual preferences, and monitors your responses (your active involvement) over time to determine how to broaden your contextual boundaries with other content, perpetuating the cycle.  Even though we are not really Facebook’s customers (we’re actually their asset), we feel a sense of ownership over our Facebook presence based on its contextual relevance to “what we care most about”.

This is where two of the foundational principles of Motivational Design – social usability and relational motivations – can drive deeper contextual meaning and relevant engagement with your content or experience.

Social Usability is directly influenced and impacted by the context of the experience a user has.  What people say or share online (the richness of one’s personal expression) and to whom (keeping connections active, continually evaluating the relevance of those connections) depends upon the contextual environment the user is in (anonymous vs. identifiable, personal vs. professional) and how important that environment is to the user’s “digital reputation” (the visibility of distinctive personal traits, the importance of being part of a group).

Relational Motivations shift the contextual drive from incoming to outgoing.  Our innate desire to see connections and relationships also drives us to validate our self-worth within the context of those connections and relationships.  It’s why some content or experiences get scanned and/or passed over (the need to satisfy one’s exploratory instinct), some get consumed and saved (the need for knowledge and control, the need to confirm one’s skills) and some get shared or commented on (the need to impose oneself and/or their beliefs, the need for approval and increase of self-esteem, the need to be part of a community).  Since the openness of a person’s brain to your content or experience is driven by their “I am what I care most about” mental model of the world, their willingness to interact with your content or experience (and the depth of that interaction) is directly tied to the unique contextual value they ascribe to it.

By nature, humans are hard-wired to see connections and relationships everywhere in an effort to make sense of our world, and that translates into how we consume digital content and experiences.  Some would refer to this as the Gestalt Principle of Totality – “the conscious experience must be considered globally (by taking into account all the physical and mental aspects of the individual simultaneously) because the nature of the mind demands that each component be considered as part of a system of dynamic relationships”.  In any digital experience we create – from the simplest flat-content to a fully-realized 3D POV world – we must respect the context in which our experience will be considered.

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kaninchen_und_Ente.png
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