Contextual Design is a process that includes methods to: collect data about people in context of their intents, desires, and drivers; interpret and consolidate that data; use the data to create prototypes; and iteratively test and refine the prototypes with the target audience it is intended to help to ensure delight.
Contextual Design is based on theories from several disciplines including anthropology, psychology and design. According to Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh R. Beyer, contextual design:
“…has primarily been used for the design of computer information and IT systems, including hardware (Curtis et al 1999) and software (Rockwell 1999). Parts of Contextual Design have been adapted for use as a field usability evaluation method (McDonald et al 2006). Contextual Design has also been applied to the design of digital libraries and other learning technologies (Notess 2005, Notess 2004). Contextual Design has also been used in a variety of other industries, including web applications, process re-engineering, consumer product design, manufacturing, and automotive and medical device design, to name just a few.”
The Contextual Design process includes the following steps:
Talk to customers while they are interacting in the experience – to provide reliable knowledge about what customers actually do and what they care about
Interpret the data in a cross-functional team – to create a shared perspective of the data
Consolidate data across multiple customers – to create a common vision for your entire customer population journey
Invent solutions grounded in your new vision – to provide a way to imagine and develop better solutions
Structure the solution to support the new vision – for planning, marketing, interaction design, and specification
Iteration with customer through prototypes – to provide early verification of design before any ideas take their final form (product, service, space, etc.)
Design the solution – define the architecture and ensures support of the new experience
Any good design considers the experience and its interactions as a whole: the handles on a Mini Cooper reflect the aesthetic of the entire car; the iPhone’s characteristic interface elements (including gestures) are carried through the entire design and the apps; all parts of the amazon.com site support the focus on customer’s interests, community ratings, related material, and easy purchase. And all pages of the site look like they are part of the site – a single page could not be changed
Contextual Design provides methods that help keep the design coherent and delight its customers.