context mapping

context mapping: guring out what you know and don’t know of your users aga szóstek(at)

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This is the third lecture about contextmapping given for the experience design master class at HITLab, Canterbury University in New Zealand. Contextmapping is an important exercise in the early design phase when the designer needs to confront his / her assumptions with the real world the users live in. It is a great preparation for user research.


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context mapping: figuring out what you know and don’t know of your users aga szóstek(at)

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to design genuine experiences the designer needs to build empathy towards the user

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Which one is the facial

and which one

the hemorrhoid crème?


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Empathy is: “our intuitive ability to identify with other people’s thoughts and feelings – their motivations, emotional and mental models, values, priorities, preferences, and inner conflicts”.

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empathy is happening in context

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context is tough to understand

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the importance of carefully defining and redefining the context for every design problem

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alternative stories for the context

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imagining the context from the perspective of the different users

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context always has components of time and space, whereas experience occurs in the context of time

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we have a tendency to imagine an ideal world

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while the world in not ideal at all

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but it’s infinitely creative and full of inspiration

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context mapping

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-  ambiguity of the phrase itself -  traditional definition used in the domain of

contextmapping: „context between people and products”

-  operationalized by the Aristotelian questions: what? how? who? when? where? how long? why?...

-  the selection of the questions determines, which aspects (beyond cognitive and physical) are important for defining the research problem

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try it out

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emotions environment

mood group context



other objects


time of the day

what happened before

what will happen after

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how to map context?

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1.  preparations 2.  sensitizing 3.  data aggregation 4.  data analysis 5.  creative workshop

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example: travelling with small kids

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-  tons of luggage -  issues pertaining to

safety and hygiene -  unpredictable

behaviour of kids


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-  preparation of a booklet where the parents could describe and draw how travelling with kids looks like

-  questions about: how the trip went, feeding and food aspects, contents of the luggage, division of tasks between the parents

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data aggregation

-  preparation of a collage presenting the collected insights, particularly focusing on what’s irritating

-  discussion about ideal solutions for eating rituals during the trips

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data analysis -  selection of interesting issues,

stories and descriptions of critical situations in a form of a scrapbook

-  returning to the initial assumptions to verify them

-  categorization of the uncovered issues through drawings and photos

-  a bag with products taken for the trips with labels with inspirational quotes from the participants

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the most interesting insight

the way kids behave in the car and in the restaurant

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what do you get out of context mapping?

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-  intensification of users’ involvement -  creation of a common language -  looking for inspiration on different levels -  materialization of new questions and discovery

of dead ends -  confirmation or rejection of assumptions

regarding a given user group

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how to do contextmapping?

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goal setting

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-  formulation of the research goal - instead of a broad question, such as: having insight in the use of mobile phone to stay in touch with the partner the goal can be formulated as: what is it like to be a partner who is just returning from the long absence and what concerns, feelings and attitudes do they have when being on the way home?

-  the product itself should not be mentioned in the goal -  a clear goal statement is especially relevant as the resulting

data is fragmentary, multi-layered and consists of individual stories

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preliminary mapping

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-  mapping knowledge and views of the experience domain with two goals in mind: -  reducing the risk of projecting one’s preconceptions on

the participants -  supporting the researcher in formulating instructions and

providing a starting structure for data analysis -  having an initial map helps to differentiate what is already

known from what was learned from the participants

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participant selection

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-  inviting a variety of people leads to rich and diverse discussions

-  the background of participants influences the study -  sessions with a few participants (2 – 4) reveals fewer stories as

there is less opportunity to reflect on each other’s experiences -  a group of four is large enough to create a group feeling and

have discussions and six is small enough to pay attention to every individual

-  in a group with more than six participants it becomes more difficult to pay attention to every individual

-  doing two or more sessions reduces the possibility of group dynamics suffering from topics only mentioned by one or a few dominant participants

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sensitizing package

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-  basic principle of the exercises in the package is to let people express memories, opinions, dreams around the central topic of the study

-  participants receive the package about one or two weeks before the creative session

-  small playful exercises trigger participants to reflect on their experiences without analyzing too much

-  each exercise elicits a fresh perspective on the situation that is explored

-  sensitizing packages are meant to stimulate reflection on the participants’ daily experiences

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-  the design of the sensitizing package should be playful and professional but also informal

-  the subject of the package is usually broader than the study subject

-  the activities should be inspirational and provocative. -  the package aims to stimulate participants to reflect on a daily

pattern over a few days so they slowly become aware about their experiences

-  the package needs to include white space to write ideas and impromptu comments.

-  working on the sensitizing packages should require no more than five to ten minutes per day

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sessions with participants

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advantages disadvantages

group sessions participants can react to each other’s experiences a global view of the context and various user experiences will be created

a large amount of diverse information is generated in one session without professional moderation, one dominant participant can influence the group it is difficult, although possible to obtain individual responses

pair sessions participants feel comfortable because they are with a friend, spouse, etc. participants may reveal things about each other the session can take place at the participant’s home or workplace

less diversity in the total range of participants since members of the pair are related or acquainted

individual sessions a lot of attention and time can be devoted to a participant and this can bring out detailed information the session can take place at the participant’s home or workplace

a participant can feel inhibited, because it may feel as if a psychologist is testing him/her about feelings, experiences and needs it is more time-consuming than groups

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data analysis

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fixating on the data

-  documenting thoughts and remarks from the session -  analysis of the audio and video-documentation. -  working with transcripts to annotate the data and select


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analyzing and being surprised

-  searching through the data for interesting indicators -  all impressions and insights need to be written down -  making notes on post-it notes facilitates their rearrangement

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finding patterns

-  organizing and reorganizing the annotations and the data -  determining recurrent and/or striking themes -  working spatially, e.g., on a wall or large boards -  creating overviews to show the relations between different

experiences and themes visually

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communicating the results

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references Visser, Froukje Sleeswijk, et al. "Contextmapping: experiences from practice." CoDesign 1.2 (2005): 119-149. Sanders, Elizabeth B-N., and Pieter Jan Stappers. "Co-creation and the new landscapes of design." Co-design 4.1 (2008): 5-18. Sanders, Liz. "ON MODELING An evolving map of design practice and design research." interactions 15.6 (2008): 13-17. Kouprie, Merlijn, and Froukje Sleeswijk Visser. "A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of the user's life." Journal of Engineering Design 20.5 (2009): 437-448. Sleeswijk Visser, Froukje, Remko Van der Lugt, and Pieter Jan Stappers. "Sharing user experiences in the product innovation process: Participatory design needs participatory communication." Creativity and innovation management 16.1 (2007): 35-45. IDStudioLab – Contextmapping -