In my previous blog I addressed the frustrations both in our private and work lives when we are coerced to use far too many different apps and devices to communicate. This is because the way that we communicate depends upon the context in which the communication takes place. The context determines which tools we use in any given situation, depending on the given audience or receiver, if (in)formal or, (a)synchronous. Therefor, the context allows for and stimulates the use of different communication methods. In my opinion, however, context should be the unifying, rather than fragmenting, factor in our daily communications.
But what exactly is context? One very usable definition comes from the research of an ex-colleague from my time at the Human Interface Technologies (HIT) at the University of Birmingham (UK). Bristow (2004) observed and classified 15 context identifiers shown in figure 1, that could be used for a working definition for wearable computers. With this work completed prior the advent of smartphones, it’s easy to draw parallels in how these can be applied to modern day wearables, and in particular the field of communications.
Fig. 1 Ranked list of context identifiers (Bristow, 2004)
If we combine the available hardware and sensors of the modern day with communications technologies empowered by APIs, we could truly leverage context to simplify and untangle our lives. If your phone sensed your activities at the moment of a call or a message, it would be able to also select which type of signal to send (or not to), visual, audio or haptic with additional indication on urgency, sender or subject content.
When receiving a call, the caller has no idea if they are disturbing me, and as a receiver I have no indication if the call is urgent, social or of interest to me. It is up to me to determine due to the relationship with that person if it is what I need right now (e.g. am I in a current project with this person, is it a family member, my intern, or my boss?). The advent of bots and artificial intelligence could augment and redistribute these communications between sender and receiver. With text to speech (and vice versa) this is already happening, so a call turned voicemail could easily land in my email box in a text format, ready to me to digest at my discretion.
In the attempt to address the user-centric relevance of context, I sketched a basic cycle of contextual zones, applicable to communications, and then mapped typical business activities according to different timeframes. Initially, this was to generate some aligned use-cases and scenarios, but could also be used algorithmically to predict user tasks based on the triggers and zone of communication. The before/during/after are fairly obvious indicators. However, the really interesting ones are the triggers/pre/post that occur around any call or message. These are the points at which the receiver has the option to take action (or not) and at call end, typically encompasses all the information processing (e.g. make a follow-up appointment, task, tickets, notes, check off agenda etc.). During each timeframe we can see that different context identifiers can have difference prominence during each step.
Fig. 2 The five contextual zones of communication and related activities (D. Williams, 2016)
Interpretations of availability and presence are widely adopted, depending on the caller and activity the user is currently engaged in, that can be either active in setting of status, or passive, predicted by the system. Efficiency gains can be made by pre-empting user intentions. Once engaged in a communication, the system can react to deflect or postpone distractions and assistive recommendations presented in a timely fashion.
Ultimately there is a need to create a central point of administration with regard to presence and availability. This layer should sit above a network of distributed hardware devices and sensors that can passively infer the best way to react, route and share information. Too much automation and artificial intelligence could be irritating and lead to sense of lost control to the user. The other end of the spectrum is where we are today in a fragmented and dispersed communication landscape. The value for the field of Unified Communications (UC), is finding the perfect balance between the two, offering timely and accurate automations and contextual routing that places the user at the centre of all developments, and finding the true Goldilocks zone.