Book Review: Understanding Context

by | March 30th, 2015

Writing a book on the idea of context is a pretty tall order, when you stop to consider how much that actually encompasses. Thinking of context as “everything, yet something,” highlights the somewhat vague nature of the topic. Many elements of context have been studied across various fields of science over recent decades. By borrowing concepts and language from these different disciplines, the keys to understanding current contexts and designing new ones become more clear.

Andrew Hinton has taken on the challenge of context with his new book Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture (O’Reilly, December 2014). In it, he explores:

  • The conceptual foundations of the way humans experience their environments
  • How these theories can (and should) be applied to technology design

understanding context book cover
The book is more theoretical than is typical of O’Reilly Publishing; Hinton draws concepts from a range of fields in an effort to complete the picture — cognitive science, ecological psychology, phenomenology, and media studies to name a few — but he manages to keep the text accessible using practical examples to clarify theories.

Although the theme of the book is understanding the relevance of context in the design of technology, Hinton first takes a few steps back, focusing first on the way we (humans) understand our physical environments. As the author points out, technology has and will continue to complicate the contexts in which we interact — obscuring and detaching objects and information from physical points of reference.

light bulb for understanding ideas
As designers and creators of technology, it’s increasingly important that we understand the idea of context in both digital and physical experiences. This starting point will help us to ultimately make products that are easy to learn and understand.

Before Context: Information and Perception

In dialogue with other technological theorists, Hinton offers a new, working definition of context. He defines it as “an agent’s understanding of the relationships between the elements of the agent’s environment.” This emphasis on an agent’s understanding is a departure from traditional definitions which generally only acknowledge the existence of these relationships, and focus less on the role of the agent within them.

In order for any agent to perceive an environment, however, we need to first understand more about information itself. Hinton breaks down information into three modes: physical, semantic, and digital.

Three modes of information

  1. Physical. Physical information, as Hinton describes it, is information that functions “ecologically” — having to do with surfaces, edges, substances, and objects.
  2. Semantic. Semantic information is communication between people — words, signs, gestures, speech, and writing.
  3. Digital. Digital information is information generally used for computers to communicate with one another, which, while created by people, is not always readily accessible to them.

cake with layers represents layers of information
These modes can be understood as being layered, one on top of the other, with physical information on the bottom, and each subsequent layer adding meaning to be perceived and understood by an agent. The book is broken up into sections according to these modes of information.

Humans perceive and understand these kinds of information in unique ways. Hinton subscribes to the theory of embodied cognition. The theory holds that cognition emerges “from an active relationship between environment, body, and brain,” standing in contrast to the traditional linear (think: input/output), brain-centric understandings of cognition.

gears for cognition

Calling upon the language of JJ Gibson’s ecological psychology to clarify relationships between environment and perception, Hinton identifies a few key concepts related to the human perceptual system, which he refers to throughout the book:

  • Affordance. Affordance, a term that is pretty widely used in design today, refers to the “properties of environmental structures that provide opportunities for action.”
  • Satisficing. Satisficing refers to the tendency of people to do just enough to meet a minimum threshold of acceptability.
  • Umwelt. An umwelt is an environment that is specific to any given organism or arguably, individual, based on the idea that our needs and experiences shape how we interpret information about the environment around us.

Elements of Context

Hinton continues to introduce types of elements to be found within any given environment. Perhaps the most foundational of these elements is the invariant, or the “persistently stable properties of the environment.” In the physical world, these are the relatively constant elements — the placement of the ground and sky, gravity, friction, etc.


It’s through our interactions with invariants that we are able to begin the understand the rules that structure our environments.

Hinton also defines at length the seemingly mundane vocabulary of the environment:

  • Surface
  • Substance
  • Medium
  • Object
  • Layout
  • Events

While some of these definitions may seem obvious, especially to those of us who use these words to communicate every day, revisiting the conceptual underpinnings offers some new (or at least infrequently considered) information that might serve as a convenient refresher for readers.

Language + Sensemaking

In addition to the physical structures of our environment, there are semantic structures. Semantic function gives us access to a great range of communication — allowing us to express complex ideas, establish social contracts, expectations, and boundaries, and to ultimately create entirely new contexts based in language alone. Semantic function works alongside physical information, perceived simultaneously, ultimately augmenting our experience of an environment. In fact, in order to engage consciously with any physical context, we require the use of language to make sense of it.

speech balloon for language and sensemaking
With language, we can create rules and systems in our environments that lead to shared understanding. We perceive these rules indirectly as we experience their effects through repeated interaction. Continuing through the cycle of perception and cognition, once we understand a rule or concept it becomes “fixed” as an environmental invariant. Once a conceptual invariant is understood, our attention to it can become tacit, allowing us to devote attention to other elements as we navigate the environment.

Good Web Design Rests on All of This

When we engage with digital systems, we do so through many layers of abstraction. Hinton points out that digital interfaces are essentially artificial environments ‘bridging the gap’ between the symbolic abstraction of digital information, and the needs of our perceptual systems. In the same way that we poke and prod physical objects to get an idea of what they are and how they work, we use digital tools (extensions of our physical selves) to poke and prod our objects in our digital environments —  scrolling, clicking, searching, to get an idea of their structure, and the rules that govern them, based on how they respond to our interactions.

interactions with devices

All of these interactions are part of the process of placemaking — the establishing of the relationship between an environment and a perceiver. Placemaking can also be understood as a conscious act of design. It helps users become oriented in a space, facilitating wayfinding within or across environments.

the author performing information architecture consulting
Information architecture plays an important role in the making of place in digital spaces. In digital environments, information architecture clarifies the invariant structures to the user. The trick for information architects is to balance order and flexibility — clearly communicating the structure of digital places and relationships between the elements within, while allowing for the right degree of exploration. According to Hinton, “information architectures are constructs that help people understand their own actions, situations, and needs” … good information architectures let users optimize their own course of action.

Designing Context for Website Users

The majority of the book consists of theories that comprise our current understanding of context. But in the very last section, Hinton gets around to mentioning methodologies that facilitate design with regard to context. Contextual design provides strategies for understanding different facets of experience — the cultural context, the physical setting, existing workflows, daily habits, and individual idiosyncrasies — all of which influence a user’s perceived environment and actions.

In a nutshell, contextual design means approaching a situation from many different angles to gain a more complete understanding of the environment in which any person is interacting.

What’s important to clarify here is that you begin the design process by gaining an understanding of a current context so that you are more well-equipped to create a digital environment that makes sense. You begin by learning the language of the business, the cultural norms at play, and the successes and roadblocks of the current system. Then you can then manipulate the structure and semantic indicators of the site or tool you’re designing in a way that refers to these phenomena —  ultimately creating a place that makes the most sense for its specific users.

Designing Context at PINT, Inc.

You may notice that what was described in that last section sounds an awful lot like what we call “Discovery” here at PINT. We take the time to get to know the people who will be using the sites we build. Of course, this includes end users who visit the site. But sometimes it is the internal stakeholders who can get overlooked. Discovery ensures we understand the needs of additional user groups, including:

  • Staff editing and adding content on a daily basis
  • Sales reps using the site as a sales or presentation tool
  • Team members frequently utilizing the site for the resources it contains

Progress in both technology and design has afforded us more flexibility in what information is obscured and revealed to users. The book ultimately provides readers with an enhanced understanding of the language necessary to articulate these relationships, which is certainly a powerful tool.

In the end, if you’re looking for step-by-step instructions for designing nice websites, you should probably look elsewhere (a book on contextual design might be a good place to start). But if you’re looking to strengthen your personal UX toolkit with a deeper understanding of human behavior, this book serves as a great resource.

finding new solutions sunset
A better understanding of the theories and concepts that inform the elements of design we  work with every day empowers us to find new solutions, or even new problems to solve.