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Contextual Communications & Devices: The Right Tools for the Best UX

by Daniel Williams, Senior UX Designer at Summa

Have you ever counted how many tools you use to communicate with others during your daily activities? When you stop to think about it, you realise just how fragmented your life is. Why is it reasonable to have a Whatsapp group with my product team at work? Why choose to exclusively Skype with my parents who live abroad, or predominantly use Facebook Messenger to plan our social lives, and then turn to Slack for chat with other designers and UX peers? Why the need for multiple apps that essentially do the same thing, only with a slightly different flavor? Why do some users use Facebook messaging in a browser, but not the app, when vice versa for Skype; in using the app but never the browser? It’s all about the context of use, and how fit-for-purpose the corresponding application is – Oh, and never forget the caveat that both parties need to be using the same app for any communication to take place. These issues are further compounded by cultural differences and communication etiquette among competing channels of communication. With “read notification” and “user is typing” status messages there are no excuses for anything other than an immediate reply or be at risk of seeming to ignore your counterpart. This may result in added pressure to interrupt and disturb your current task, and ultimately your once productive life.

Context Identifiers

Imagine if your mobile device was aware of your cognitive load at the point of calling? Was aware that the receiver was desperately trying to finish writing a report, or was driving in a snow storm, and direct the call to voicemail. Or if it could be trained that between 19:30-20:00 every weekday, I was (trying!) to put my child to bed, so would set to “do not disturb”. If my phone is almost out of power, would forward all calls to another device. Why do I have to set my email auto-responder in a totally different software than my phone forwarding when heading on vacation? At this moment we are slaves to technology, while our focus and productivity suffer when these contextual factors are not taken into account.

Unified Ecosystems

Even the high walls of Apple Inc.’s closed hardware and software ecosystem fail in delivering timely and appropriately distributed communications. The notification echo from laptop, to iPhone, to smartwatch, triggered by a single incoming imessage disregards current activity or focus, or what my primary communication device is at that specific time. Handoff and Airdrop are similar attempts to provide seamless communications between devices. However, to my experience they rarely “just work” the principal mantra of the illustrious icompany, that prides itself on bleeding edge user experiences. The other major player; Alphabet continues to craft un-unified experiences across its open portfolio of products. Google Wave was intended to be a cross-communications productivity tool that largely missed the mark, yet still they offer a myriad of stand-alone services such as Hangouts, Apps for Work, Calendar, Docs, Drive, Inbox, Spaces, Voice, Keep, Note, Talk, Now, and another video calling app; Google Duo. Such fragmentation, even from the same provider, is certainly not the ultimate communication experience, in neither the business or personal domain.

The majority of people would agree that adding contextual attributes to communications would be of some measurable benefit, either in efficiency gains or increased user satisfaction. Shared awareness that the recipient of a call was in a less than convenient situation such as a job interview, in hospital, leading a workshop, or otherwise unavailable, then the caller’s intentions could be adapted and appropriate action taken towards an alternate communication channel (such as email, chat or sms). Unfortunately for us, most Unified Communication (UC) applications have only partially attempted to address this with impractical presence states such as “busy” or “in a meeting”, which are rarely utilised by people in real world.

In my opinion, if the field of UC fully embraces the multitude of open APIs, that can scrape information from our calendars, to do’s and apps, coupled with hardware and sensors from the emerging Internet of Things, then we have an opportunity to fully leverage context in a usable and unprecedented way. We just need to ensure that we move forward in a user centric way.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams

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