iHeavy Insights 62 – Context


by Sean Hull – December 1, 2009

Context is important. Looking at a problem from a different context will have you seeing different problems, and different solutions. What’s obvious when you’re in the lab, programming an interface, or designing a product or service for your customer may end up being unworkable in the day-to-day context in which it is used. It may be cumbersome and confusing to folks with a different perspective or different way of working.

Example One: iPhone OS v1.0 – The SMS Application

When the iPhone first came out, it strangely had quite limited SMS capabilities. Despite the incessant clamoring from iPhone owners, it took time for Apple to add some very basic features. To look at Apple’s site, the support forums, and so on you’d think SMS was some obscure technology from Mars that people used in the old days, but no longer. From Apple’s context the priorities were clearly iPod & music playing functionality, safari, and apps.

Well we all know they were visionary when it came to applications. The simplicity of the App Store, and the explosion of the apps industry proves that clearly. But it’s also clear that they weren’t totally in tune with day-to-day users. When it comes to mobile phones, the lowest common denominator wins. And all mobile phones support basic SMS. So without knowing what type of phone friend has, or what they may or may not use, you know you can SMS message them. And people do, in huge volume. Want to send four friends the address of the restaurant to meet at tonight? You certainly don’t want to type that in four times, but that is what you needed to do with iPhone OS 1.0’s SMS application.

When I first tried the SMS application, it was clear that the developers or UI designers do not actively send a lot of SMS messages. It was immediately clear from my context because I *do* send a lot so I know what the features are and why they’re important.

Example 2: Building Suites and Apartments Numbering

In Ken Auletta’s new book Googled, he tells a story of how Sergey Brin was dissatisfied with the numbering system of the computer science buildings. Being an engineer and a problem solver, he devised a new scheme which would have fewer digits and also tell you distances between buildings.

In New York sometimes you walk into an apartment building, and the apartment numbers don’t even locate floors. What might make sense from an architects perspective or context, looking at blueprints, is often very different when you’re walking around a place and living in it.


The context is always important in business and consulting. One must consider how your customer or client sees things, what words mean for them, and from their perspective. It’s also important in building products and services. Without understanding how a technology will live and breath when it’s rolled out to customers, it will be difficult to provide the winning solutions, the ones that last, the ones that customers talk about. And the same goes for consulting, and services.

Review: Googled – The End of the World As We Know It

by Ken Auletta

The title sounds vaguely fatalistic, the end of the world is nigh, that kind of thing. It turns out though that Auletta is a journalist having reported over the years a lot on old media. So when he says “as we know it” he’s speaking as much to old media as he is to the tech vanguard.

But what makes his book superb isn’t just his phenomenal journalistic skills, in digging up all the facts and serving up a fair and accurate presentation of things. I think it’s important that he’s not a cheerleader at all, and approaches the topic with a critical eye as much to old media who ignored many of the warning signs in early 2000’s as to google who he emphasizes has been hubristic, at times arrogant, and has struggled with issues of privacy and copyright as they’ve built their technology.

What makes this book even more important though is to step back and think of it as a case study in how the internet has become such a disruptive force. And in that light, google is a business which has rode that wave as much as it has defined it. Interestingly Google was not afraid to bring him to Mountain View to speak in their AtGoogleTalks series, and that video is now up on YouTube.

Take a listen – Ken Auletta – Authors @ Google

View Googled on Amazon