Mobile apps: Context, context, context

By Peter Ballard @Ballyfool

Long recognised as a stalwart of user-centred design, the value of understanding the “context of use” has an even greater pay-off when designing mobile applications.

And this week I had two reminders of how important that is, as I discovered a new app that illustrates this brilliantly, and reached the end of my patience with one that doesn’t.

‘My Kitchen Table’ app

First, the good one. As part of a project we’re doing in the area of fresh food online, I found an app called “My Kitchen Table”. It’s a pretty decent recipe app, with the features that you would expect such as good images, step-by-step instructions, and loading ingredients into a shopping list (although it lacks integration with any online grocer sites).

However, the real genius is that the developers have understood that one of the most important contexts of use will be in the kitchen, actually making the dish, and that having the recipe on your phone is not consistent with your hands being covered in flour/eggs/chicken giblets etc.

And they have come up with a quite brilliant solution; using the light sensor on the camera they have added an ‘air gesture’ control device, which in ‘cooking’ mode allows you to wave your hand, right-to-left, at about 15cm above the phone, to scroll to the next cooking step in the recipe.

It’s a relatively simple addition, but makes the world of difference to the experience, to a point where keeping a bunch of recipes on my phone now feels entirely practical (even more so when they make an iPad version!).

Sky sports app

I compare this with my very painful weekly reminder of poor context of use. Sky sports have an app dedicated to keeping track of football scores, giving live updates of scores from all games around the country. It’s fairly safe to assume that the main audience for the app is football supporters. It’s also a good bet that many users of that app are at football grounds around the country at 3pm on a Saturday, and this is the time they most want to keep track of what other teams around them in the table are doing. So can I get connected to the app when in a football ground? The answer is invariable always no.

Whilst this is possibly not Sky’s fault, and more to do with 3G access and volume of people needing a data connection in one place, it is still a reminder that thinking about the context in which an app is going to be used is an important part of the designer’s responsibility, and trying to develop solutions that fit the context is where success lies.

Peter Ballard

I co-founded Foolproof with Tom Wood back in 2002. Today I work across a range of clients, particularly in the roles of Experience Planner and Client Partner. In my role as Experience Planner, I ensure that our design teams have access to the right insight to respond appropriately to the business and creative challenges faced by our clients.

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