Andrew Hinton is the author of Understanding Context, on how information creates and shapes context, and what that means for design.

We had the chance to interview him after UX Week 2015.

Here’s the second, of three parts of our conversation. You can find part one here.

Can We Really Separate Experience from Context?

One of the frustrations in the user experience discourse is all this swirling around the word experience, and the frustration that people get into.

When I was writing my book I realized that I had to talk about this topic. It’s a book. I can’t just get up like I do at a conference and dance around it. I actually have to have an answer when somebody says, what is context? And I have to believe it. So, I dug into that research and learned that perception and action are at the root of experience. And it really all boils down to that. We can’t get into someone’s head and read their mind, obviously. But we can learn a lot about what that perception-action dynamic is.

What we have to do is just consider the contextual patterns, the behavioral patterns, and broaden our aperture so that we aren’t doing one journey map and going, “We figured out the context of this.”

We have to consider all of those other angles. But the problem is you can’t do it all. You can’t count every molecule in the universe. So at some point, you have to be broad, but you have to decide what to focus on and then iterate.

How Can We Design with Context in Mind?

Basically you have to enumerate them all and do a close reading of each and break them down and analyze them and figure out what is it that’s happening in terms of perception and action and language and digital influence in each of those situations.

Break it down and figure out what the layers are and then see where there might be confusion and things were this context sets you up to think this way but then you get to the next and it’s actually the opposite.

The word I’ve been saying a lot in this presentations James J. Gibson’s term, “invariance”. In ecological psychology, invariance is the stable qualities of our environment—that which does not change in the midst of change.

When we are creating artificial invariance in the environment, do we have an ontology that we are developing that says a label or a signifier or whatever a certain thing means? Or a certain physical action, is it going to continue to mean a certain thing contextually?

It has to be all part of a big, coherent system, where people’s perception can rely on stability and consistency in how signifiers are used to make the environment.

Could You Comment on Designing for Moments Versus Tasks?

I think it’s always good to be reframing the way we talk about this stuff and to think, what do we mean by tasks?

If we are breaking them down into more atomic bits or if we’re rethinking what that means, I think that’s fine.

I’m a very pluralistic believer in models.  There are many models we can bring to this, some of which seen to be almost the opposite.  But to understand all aspects, the more complex all this work is.

Users don’t think of tasks per se, but they’re living a moment and then go into our interface. How do we make sense of that?

At first I thought you meant something smaller than a task. It sounds like you are talking about what I call “situation” and to some degree “need.”

You could have five people all doing the same physical action for five completely different reasons and all of them are confused because the thing has been designed to sort of make sense to everybody but it doesn’t make sense to anybody.

So I think that’s important. Again, the only way to find that out is to ask or to watch. And start somewhere.

It’s the same issue of you having to consider these different points of view or different situational contexts, but you’ll never be able to capture them all.

So like most things we make, like any kind of architectural work, it won’t suit everybody’s needs.

What it has to do is create and arrange space in such a way that opportunity is set for a great variety of needs which can be accommodated by people.  Help them figure out the space and how to use it for themselves, for their unique situation.

Does this Mean Demographics Aren’t Enough to Understand Our Users?

I know that in different communities around the world, there are different stages of these ideas coming to the surface. But even here certainly there are still tons of companies where they assume that when we say that we need to understand the customer, for example, that it’s all analytics, surveys, and statistics.

Product development research is something that marketing folks typically do based on statistics with maybe a little bit of observational stuff here and there. But the really smart ones, like IDEO, have done very well for themselves over the years by saying to product companies, “We have a better way,” and they actually go and watch people do stuff. And anyone can do that ethnographic work. There is no secret sauce, it’s just a methodology and a way learning.

But it’s still really hard to get a lot of companies to understand that sort of research is important. Businesses tend to think of spreadsheets which are good for a lot of different things. But by the time information makes it into a spreadsheet, everything is so abstract, you can read a lot of context into it that isn’t there. Seeing people actually fumble around in their lives and figure things out makes a huge difference.


About Andrew

Andrew Hinton, formerly a Senior Information Architect at The Understanding Group, LLC, is now Senior Digital Experience Architect at State Farm. He’s the author of Understanding Context from O’Reilly Media, and a frequent speaker and workshop leader in the United States, Europe, and beyond. Over the years, he’s worked with clients and employers of all shapes and sizes, including Kimberly-Clark, RF Micro Devices,, Vanguard, Sealy and Lowe’s Home Improvement. You can find more information at

Part III

In part three we continue the conversation with Andrew and review how an information architect fits in the software development industry.

For more, you can contact Misael Leon at [email protected].