What Is a Contextual Design?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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Contextual design approaches product and service development from a user-centered approach. It includes studies to determine how people use existing products to incorporate this information into models that can be tested by prospective consumers before putting something into development. This approach is available for use in a variety of design fields, and can be particularly popular with software and other computer products. Specialists in contextual design are available to help firms interested in implementing it.

The process begins with a careful analysis of people using products in their natural environment. This includes individual interviews with subjects, which can later be consolidated into a variety of models that include different kinds of use cases and observations from individual interviews. These become the basis of a vision for what a product should do and how it should perform so the designers can create effective models. Subjects can participate in modeling with adjustable components to allow them to customize the experience and demonstrate what they want and need in a product.


For example, a company designing software could present participants with a felt board with a number of different movable representations of features. They could move components around to show how the software should be laid out, and to demonstrate the features they would want to see in the finished product. This information helps the software designers create a program that will meet customer needs and increase the chances of satisfaction, because real use cases were involved in its development and the contextual design team considered input from people likely to use the software.

A mixture of disciplines can be involved in contextual design. In the interview and observation process, psychology and sociology can play a role, because observers need to pick up accurate information and must be skilled at conducting interviews without accidentally coaching or directing answers. During development phases of projects, experts in the field must be able to develop working models and refine them in response to feedback, working with the whole development team.

Companies interested in contextual design follow a set of steps in product development which can take varying lengths of time, depending on the project and the level of depth needed. Consultants can evaluate a plan before the firm starts work. They can help the company estimate how long the process will take and what kinds of expenses may be involved in the development process, which can help the company budget time, resources, and funds appropriately for the project.



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