Many of the issues related to website design intimately concern people. People remember websites that satisfied their needs perfectly, which is why real users need to be studied within their everyday context. The more we know about the circumstances of potential users, the greater the possibility that websites will support users' everyday lives.


'... The hardest part in developing a system is in deciding what to build'

(Brooks 1987, p. 11).


People will not remember a website because of how well it was designed, how fast it loaded or how catchy a headline was. No. People remember websites because at some point in their lives, the website satisfied their needs perfectly. Reflecting on Brooks (1987) quote above; discovering a perfect fit for a website, within the context of peoples lives, is only achievable when time is spent discovering what is meaningful to the end-user.

People can access websites anytime and anywhere through a device connected to the Internet. The end-user's environment, such as their location, is constantly changing, something called context. Contextual websites meet the needs of end-users by capturing and leveraging on the key design features that significantly influences their needs. To highlight the importance of understanding the end-user and their environment, Jacques Derrida in Western philosophical tradition once said '... There is nothing outside the context' (Smith 2005, p. 44).

What is Context?

However, designing context principles into websites is not so simple. There is also debate surrounding the question of how to define context; as Dourish (2004) explains, context is a 'slippery' concept '... that keeps to the periphery, and slips away when one attempts to define it' (p. 29). Context relates to the human as an interacting social being (Hewett et al. 1996, p. 18) and within the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) literature, '... context is typically limited to 'place'', i.e., the location, identity, and state of people, groups, and computational and physical objects' (Rasanen & Nyce 2006 p. 176). However, Schmidt, Beigl and Gellersen (1998) warn of this common practice of focusing on 'location' as a quick contextual factor, while ignoring the multitude of other user-centered contexts (Table 1.1). For example, even time pressure has a significant effect on contextual features and how they are perceived, as Dhar, Nowlis and Sherman (2000) explained.

Table 1.1: User Centered Context Spectrum

Item Context Type Description
1.1.1 User context: Information related to user, including user dynamic information (current and historical location, current and historical activity, current emotion, relationships or contact with colleagues or friends, etc.) and static information (social situation, personal information, user habit, user preference, etc.)
1.1.2 Physical context: Environment physical information (lighting, noise, temperature, humidity level, traffic conditions, etc.) and device physical information (device battery, memory, size and type of screen, device OS, input and output method, nearby resources such as printers, etc.)
1.1.3 Network context: Network capacity, connectivity, costs of computing and communication, bandwidth, etc.
(Adapted from: Liu, Li & Huang 2011)

Human Computer Interaction emphasises understanding the social context in which websites exist. While the definition of context remains unclear, what is clear is that the more we know about the social circumstances of potential users, the greater the possibility that websites will support users' everyday lives. It is also clear that websites fail when designers fail to give proper attention to the social context of the user. Understanding the meaningful human activities of the user should then become critical to the website development process.

Applying Context to Web Design

With the increasingly rich variety of Internet-capable devices and Internet software technologies available, websites no longer lend themselves to rigid definitions or static taxonomies. This is why real users need to be studied within their everyday context. The more realistic the study conditions, the greater the understanding to be gained about the interactional processes between users and websites. While this is often understood to be important, alarming numbers of website developers, designers and managers continue to ignore the context of websites, relevant to the end-users.

Its not rocket science, the aim is to approach websites more analytical, with a more inclusive way of understanding their design and implementation. Remember: Apple is now the most valuable company in the world because, in business terms, a user-centred approach is better than 'functionality-centred', 'engineer-centred', or 'producer-centred design' (Wood 2012).

The aim is to build context-aware websites that adapt behaviour depending on the context of use, without end-user intervention. Bainomugisha, Meuter and D'Hondt (2009) explain that context of use '... consists of context information such as current location, time, user preference, user's mood or surrounding situation' (n.p). When the context changes, the website needs to respond to the new context by selecting applicable adaptations. This principle is commonly observed in responsive website design, which adapts a single website to multiple screen sizes. However, before a website design can take full advantage of responsive web design, the website designer must first appreciate the size of the end-user's screen within a real-world context.

The designer should recognise that many of the issues related to website design intimately concern people; that the social context of the website presents a better stage to study these phenomena than the purely material world of technology. This approach requires a deep understanding, empathy or indwelling with the end-user. It involves 'capturing the essence' of an account through continued immersion in the subject matter.


While few would disagree with the need to deepen our understanding of new contexts, it is important to recognise that new design contexts do not necessarily demand the development of new design methods. The methodology discussed here is not new; these concepts originated in the nineteenth century and were adapted to the design of computer interfaces in the early 1990s. While the methods themselves are not new, their application to website development is.

Ethnography arose within the discipline of anthropology. Anthropology itself originated during the nineteenth century as an area of research concerned with colonial encounters between Europeans and the Indigenous peoples of North and South America, Africa, the South Pacific, and elsewhere. Geertz (1973) wrote, '... the focus of study is not the object of study. Anthropologists don't study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods) they study in villages' (p. 22). Ethnographic investigation emphasised the need to understand 'the member's point of view', by advocating a long-term, immersive fieldwork combining observation with participation (Dourish 2006).

At the same time, ethnography was used to study aspects of American urban life, such as issues in locales quite different from those of the enquirer. It continued to retain its sense of ethnographic distance between subject and object, through inquiry into subcultures such as those of tramps, prostitutes, and gamblers, in odd locations such as public toilets and mental institutions. This application of ethnographic methods was a critical step towards their use in studying technology users (Dourish 2006).

Ethnography is frequently used as a requirements-gathering technique in HCI. While it is often misunderstood as simply being a method of collecting field data, the ethnographer is rather a form of 'translator' or 'broker' between the study participants and the designer (Millen 2000). Ethnography offers a natural interpretation and understanding of human behaviour within a given context; it allows for a '... holistic and inductive response-adaptive' procedure (Cresswell 2006); it studies '... human behaviour in its natural circumstances' (Dourish 2007).

Ethnographic research provides website designers with a richer understanding of the 'context of use' for the websites they design; it provides a way to gather user requirements that would be difficult for most users to articulate, and it helps designers understand the variety and complexity of relationships between individual users within and between groups. It entails conducting fieldwork in natural settings, the study of macro environments to provide a more complete context of activity, comprehensive descriptions of people, environments and interactions, an objective perspective, and a bias toward users' perspectives (Millen 2000).

One critical aspect of ethnography, yet one rarely discussed in HCI, is rapport. Anthropologists view rapport as a '... mutual understanding and trust which will in turn facilitate the ethnographic encounter' with participants (Rode 2011, p. 127). Rapport provides access to participants' geographical location; it encourages open and honest communication, even when the subject is embarrassing or culturally inappropriate to discuss. It involves creating shared understandings; it positions the enquirer within the social structure of the informant's culture, details that are key for gathering requirements (Rode 2011).

However, the biggest challenge facing ethnography for website design is the demand to spend time in the field. Ethnography is traditionally time-intensive, '... typically, ethnography will take place over a period of several months with at least the same amount of time spent in analysis and interpretations of the observations' (Bentley et al. 1992, p. 124). For website designers, spending months gathering and analysing field data is not often possible. Nevertheless, the benefits of field-situated data remain inviting (Millen 2000).

Contextual inquiry

Given the legitimate interest of HCI in inquiring into complex social settings, a range of methods have been proposed, occasionally being termed 'discount ethnography'. One such method is Contextual Inquiry (Beebe 1995). Contextual inquiry was developed for those who do not possess the training or the time to conduct ethnographic work. This method allows the designer to move from an office setting to the real world as a basis for design inspiration (Dourish 2006).

Contextual inquiry is a methodology adapted from psychology, anthropology, and sociology, involving both qualitative data gathering and data analysis. It is '... a field data-gathering technique that studies a few carefully selected individuals in depth to arrive at a fuller understanding of the work practice across all customers' (Kuniavsky 2003, n.p). It involves visiting the end-user in their environment and observing them as they interact with the interface. By understanding what the end-user actually does, the designer can produce a website that fits into the end-user's life and is ultimately valuable to them.

Rosenbaum & Kantner (2007) summarise contextual inquiry methods to include the following key characteristics:

    1. Users become partners with the researchers in the inquiry; an ongoing dialogue enhances data collection.
    2. The inquiry is based on a set of general concerns to guide observation, not on a list of specific questions to ask.
    3. The result is concrete data based on users' expertise in their own activities (Rosenbaum & Kantner 2007, n.p).

The aim of contextual inquiry is to establish rapport with people within their social contexts. Through this method of close observation, the designer can more easily decide what interactions are required. Observing this user experience is important, but to really understand the user's thoughts, feelings, and experiences requires a non-directed interview. This is the process of conducting an interview without filtering the user's thoughts through the preconceptions of the interviewer.

Finally, contextual inquiry method remains somewhat subjective. That is, observation data is still subject to interpretation. Nevertheless, such interpretations are still considered to be better than traditional methods of interviewing and questionnaires. Contextual enquirers also need to be rather open-minded and non-disruptive as they observe users (Lewis & Cleary 2001).


New design contexts do not necessarily demand the development of new design methods. Ethnographic research was developed in the nineteenth century to study the colonial encounters between Europeans and the Indigenous peoples. It was also used to study aspects of American urban life, such as issues in locales quite different from those of the enquirer, providing a richer understanding of the 'context of use'. While this method is effective at understanding context, the biggest challenge facing ethnography for website design is the demand to spend time in the field. For this reason, a range of methods have been proposed.

Contextual inquiry was developed for those who do not possess the training or the time to conduct ethnographic work. It involves visiting the end-user in their environment and observing them as they interact with the interface. Using this method, the user's basic requirements are identified and developed into a working prototype, which can be as simple as a drawing on the back of a dinner napkin or as complete as a high-fidelity software interface. Yet, even the best designers cannot design error-free websites in a single attempt, requiring some form of iteration and prototyping, which involves testing the prototype on end-users, to identify any problems or contextual misfits. Although user involvement in the design process may appear to be complicated and time-consuming, involving users produces many benefits.

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