Context, put in context…

AT some point in the early 90’s Kevin Smith had a meeting with producer Jon Peters about the script for a planned Superman movie, “Superman Lives”, that Smith had been hired to write. Apparently, Peters was fresh off a viewing of “Star Wars” – at the time nothing short of the gold standard for commercial movie success, having knocked “Jaws” out of pole position – and felt that “his” Superman movie needed some of that SW magic.

Specifically, it needed an R2D2 knockoff. In his mind, that kind of thing had made Star Wars a hit, so if he had that in his movie, it, too, would become a hit.

Now, “Superman Lives” died on the vine – though not before trying to bring Nic Cage in to play the title character, and removing both his suit and his ability to fly – so you’ve probably never heard about it. I bet you’re wondering why I’m telling you this.
Well, it’s an intro to talking about context. You don’t even have to be either a Superman or a Star Wars fan to silently mouth “WTF” to yourself upon reading of Peters’ insane idea (he also wanted Supes to fight a giant spider because he had a thing for giant spiders – and yes, he did produce “Wild Wild West”) because both these things so permeate pop culture that you know them, at least well enough to wonder why anyone would think that taking something from one of them and shoehorning it into the other would automatically make it successful.


Because you have context for the scenario. You don’t go thinking “well that’s wholly illogical because…” but you understand belonging, and not belonging.

OK, so via the timely medium of pop culture I’ve managed to tell you that I want to talk about context – but why? Well, I’m all about people, you know, understanding us and using empathy professionally in an effort to make better services and products, and it strikes me we need to talk about this a little.

In the field of digital stuff the word “context” gets used a lot – for example, about contextual content and functionality in websites, trying to make gadgets (like smartphones) context-aware and so on.
However, I think we need to pay more attention to context not just in these narrow terms, but in general, and that’s because I believe that the way ahead is going to have to be an alliance between the folks making things, and the people they want to sell it to.
I believe the current trend of companies trying to sneak, trick, herd, bribe or bully people to use their product is a fad – it will end, and those already thinking about what will come after will be the ones that thrive. Following the logic of trends and countertrends, it’s reasonable to think that that next thing will be something about actually creating genuine value for one’s customers – which requires that one really does understand them, not just passively, like a dispassionate observer looking at bits of them through a microscope, but actively and empathically.

In my previous article I wrote about gamification, and this is actually sort-of a continuation of that line of thinking. Sure, we can, and should, look to anything for inspiration – hell, I just opened a supposedly professional-ish article about something real and serious with a reference to Superman – but before we grab something from somewhere and decide to just shove it into something else because “people loved that other thing it was in” we have to look at the context.

Context, put in context…

though some people still seem to struggle with the concept…

And the more complex and/or subtle the situation is, the closer we have to pay attention – one of the ways context can reach around and bite us right in the butt is when we, user experience professionals, try to include users and put them in situations like listening labs, or have them fill out surveys, or even watch them passively. Every time we do something like that we have to consider the context carefully – even going so far as trying to make abductive assumptions about parts of it we can’t access sometimes – or our results can end up skewed beyond usefulness by some small factor we hadn’t thought about. Or, in other words, context can screw with our understanding of people, even as we’re in the middle of trying to understand them better.

I could go on about this – and I probably will – but let’s say, for now, that it’s like this: Whoever came up with the idea of selling people food while they’re in their cars probably wouldn’t have been very successful if they had proposed to do it from a moving vehicle on the highway, and that’s why drivethru places are situated where they are.

Hey, that’s good, let’s go with that: Context is to the mind as location is to the body.