Last week, Jason Grigsby (@grigs) posted a thought-provoking article entitled On Mobile Context. It's got a ton of links, a nice video, and plenty of good comments all focused on context and what it may or may not mean for mobile. I've discussed context before in this blog as well.
Jason's primary thesis, as I understood it and how I chose to respond to it at least, is that their are a number of people arguing against context but, as much as he can see their points, he finds himself feeling that there is something context-y *when those same folks say, essentially, "if there's no context then there's no separate mobile web either.*" It's this conflict of feelings that brought about his post.
Defining Context (the traditional way)
I'm going to take a page from my old high school papers where I tried to fill-up a few lines by covering the definition of a word:
**context* is the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc. [source]*
Bringing that to mobile, it basically translates to "your current situation will have an effect on how you or why you use mobile." I've primarily focused on thinking of context from a "use case" perspective. I'm starting to think that that is too narrow of a definition of context. Essentially it's allowing environment to be too much of a driver for the thinking around context.
Context is Not About Environment
Developers and designers are not clairvoyant. We can't possibly know every environment a user can be in and intelligently design for these environments and use cases. Nor should we attempt to fake clairvoyance. We can't guess for the user the content they'd like to see based on environmental factors we could detect. We'd spend our time spinning our wheels on something that probably doesn't even matter. When 30% of smartphone users use the phone from their couch while watching TV [source] the primacy of an "on the move," environment-based context go out the window.
That being said, I do believe in a mobile context…
Context is About Our Relationship With Our Mobile Devices
Mobile is defined by being personal. Completely, unadulterated, totally, never-out-of-reach personal. So personal that 83% of millennials and 68% of Gen X'ers (full disclosure: me) sleep with phones within arms reach. [source]
To me that's the ultimate context of mobile. A mobile device is an extension of you. It's what information you want when you want it. It's your thoughts and feelings shared with whom you want when you want. It's what you want do to when you want to do it.
With mobile, if you have a need, almost any need, then you can address it. Now.
And that's all because of the characteristics of the device (e.g. touch, customization, size, weight, networking, cameras, etc.) and it's those characteristics that I think end up properly setting our mobile context. The best camera/browser/search tool/map/etc. is the one you have with you.
What This Means for Mobile Web
The challenge that's out there for us now is not "How do we figure out some environment-based context and let that inform the experience (e.g. traveling in a car)?" but instead, "How do we make the experience we want to deliver via this little bit of glass and plastic *personal*? How do we get our content to relate to the user in a more useful, one-on-one way as defined by the user?"
It's, ultimately, a re-imagining of how our content fits our users needs. Just think about what Mobile First really implies. "What tasks make sense to the user?" "What does the user want?" "What is going to be most relatable to the user?" All of these things are focused on the personal nature of the experience.
The current mobile web, or rather the predominance of our implementations, is, quite frankly, legacy. For the most part the browser can almost be considered Mac OS X's "classic mode" for our devices. As someone who loves mobile web development that sounds depressing. But the browser almost seems like shim to get users to all the crude bullhorn-like "talk at you" content. Fairly useful but ultimately not the best.
These "classic mode" and classic web implementations aren't going to go away anytime soon. There's just way too much content out there and we have to find a bridge. That little search box in the browser can be a serious pain in the arse The good news for us is that their is inertia in this mass of existing content. And it's this inertia that will give mobile web developers the time to sort out how to make the best use of mobile's special capabilities. To make mobile web experiences personal.
Also, from Jason's original blog post came a nice, short presentation from Dave Mulder (@muldster) that does a good job of mixing both my arguments as well as Jason's. It's a tad more concise than my blog post