After reading Paul Boag‘s article on context (Content is Dead, Long Live Context) I started to consider how much a user’s context should affect the way local authorities deliver certain services.

In the article, Paul breaks context into five aspects:

Environment

The kind of information or service the customer requires will be dependent on their location, a customer wishing to report a broken street light may well be standing under it and will want different information to a customer who is sat in the comfort of their home.

Device

As the article acknowledges, environment and device can go hand in hand, a customer in the middle of a muddy field is likely to be using a mobile device, but this is not the only context affected by a customers device.

The device will determine the input methods available, on a mobile phone or handheld there is unlikely to be a mouse and on a games console the keyboard is onscreen. Using complex forms or rich applications such as maps may be impossible using devices with limited input methods.

A mobile device may have other input methods we could take advantage of, such as built-in GPS or a camera, allowing the customer to take a photo of a pothole and record it’s exact location.

Comfort

Physical comfort is something we can only guess at, but we can allow location information to give us clues. The most relevant aspect of comfort is when it is due to physical conditions, such as a disability or injury. We can’t expect a customer with back pain to sit for a great length of time to complete a job application without some method of saving and resuming later.

Mood

As the article discusses, emotional whims will affect attention span or toleration of bad design and needless steps in a process. This is especially relevant in local government because often a service is required because we have done something to inconvenience the customer or because we have imposed a complex process. Take the example of reporting a missed bin collection or applying for planning permission.

We should make every effort to make these kinds of services as simple and intuitive as possible to minimise errors and abandoned sessions.

Time

Customers who are under a time constraint, for example applying for a job before the position closes or paying a parking fine before the amount escalates are less likely to be tolerant of unnecessary steps or buried content. But also, if it takes longer to report a problem online than it does to pick up the phone you are actually costing the customer and yourself more.

To be truly ‘customer-focused’, an understanding of our customer’s context is paramount. Using context to shape the way we design and deliver services puts the user at the centre of the process.