Ben Holliday

Getting closer to context and extremes in product design

I drive a 2007 Citreon Picasso. It’s a functional car that suits my family.

When the clocks change I never reset the time on the dashboard in British summertime. This is because I can’t work out the dashboard controls. I’ve tried a few times but given up. It’s easier to just adjust the time +1 hour in my head for 6 months of the year.

I’ve learned to live with this, but for the last 2 months the dashboard display has been displaying messages in Portuguese. This is because I accidentally reset the language controls when I was trying to get the screen wash to work while driving home from work.

This should have been straightforward. The problem is I was driving on the M62 motorway in the North of England in December. It was dark, wet, and visibility was poor. I was trying my very best to focus on not crashing the car in heavy traffic. These are fairly typical conditions for people doing a regular commute at the time of year.

Testing what you design in context

As someone who designs interactions within products and services the experiences with my car highlight the importance of testing what you design in context. We need to understand how and when people will use the thing we’re designing.

If we’re doing our job right, what we’re designing will meet the needs of the people that use it — in my case, my need is to be able to activate core functions in the car while driving. For example, while staying focussed on the road I might need to turn on my headlights, check my speed, or be made aware of any mechanical problems the car might have so I can take action.

Whatever we’re designing we should test in situations which are as close as possible to a real user. It’s also important to consider the extremes — the dark nights in December. For the designers of my Citreon Picasso, they could have test driven the car in dark wet weather while observing people operating the dashboard controls for the first time.

Extreme conditions for digital products and services

The same principle is applicable to digital products and services. Try to test the things you design and build with real users and get as close to context of use as possible. This isn’t about designing for edge cases. It’s about understanding how well your product or service will meet user needs in extreme conditions.

This might mean you need to test a product or service in someone’s home rather than a lab situation that takes them away from their real life. Try to understand what it means for someone to use something when under a time constraint or when dealing with the stress of a real life situation related to their personal or family situation.

Every product or service exists within the context in which we need to use it. Try and get closer to that context and see what you can learn from the extremes you find.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.