More songs about context and mood: A deeper dive into definitions

Let me be the first to assure you that it rapidly becomes obvious, at least to me, when I’ve opened a can of worms: my post last week on the distinction between “location-based services” and “context-aware applications” has generated some really tasty pushback from readers, including a rather pointed missive from someone who we’ve agreed shall remain nameless here, and who felt my definition was unduly reductionist.

As will occasionally be an occupational hazard for the would-be human boundary object, in trying to convey something important from one of the communities I’m involved in to another, I oversimplified. It turns out that I myself was guilty of committing just the lapse I’d set out to address in the broader discussion around these themes, leaving out some important pointers to the history of shared assumptions on which I built my distinction. So everything that follows here hopefully redresses that, and explains (for those who care) just why and how I arrived at the definition I did.

It’s not for everyone, but if you’ve even occasionally heard the phrase “context-aware” being bruited about your workplace, you may find it of some interest and utility. Leastways, I hope so.

Paul Dourish’s 2004 “What We Talk About When We Talk About Context” is the classic discussion of the theme. As is always the case, Dourish brings the most welcome sort of intellectual richness to the table, catnip to those of us who get dispirited when the scope of conversation narrows to some arcane matter of engineering.

He starts by identifying the critical break between positivist and phenomenological approaches to understanding context, a break that renders so many of the discussions designers, engineers and strategists have around the subject exercises in frustration.

Briefly, heirs to the positivist tradition conceive of the world as a place in which things (and people) have concrete, stable identities, each of which is capable of being usefully described by an objective observer. Some other important things tend to follow from this way of understanding reality – the notion, for example, that such objects also have positions in time and space which are knowable and susceptible to specification at arbitrary precision. It’s an orderly, Newtonian universe, and it’s the one many if not most of the people you know who were trained as engineers are comfortable inhabiting.

But it stands in stark contrast to the phenomenological take on things, which is premised on the instability and subjectivity of the things we perceive, and on the irreducible importance of these perceptions as they register on the lived body, i.e. you, now, here, in your own skin, heir to your own history of experience. On the phenomenological side of the house, all of the grandeur resides in the act of interpretation – which is always somebody’s interpretation, crucially inflected by their situation. (For those folks you no doubt know who tend to put the phrase social sciences rather pointedly in quotes, and whose legs start to twitch the moment any hint of Frenchness is invoked, you can refer them back to the basic Heisenbergian insight that the very fact of observation affects that which is being observed; I wouldn’t imagine anyone would have heartburn with that idea at this late date.)

The phenomenological approach – and this is the worldview that stands, either explicitly or otherwise, behind the entire field subsuming design and user research and ethnography, at least as those things are practiced by the people I know – insists that the world in its richness cannot be reduced to datasets. Or not, anyway, without doing fatal damage to everything that truly matters.

Dourish identifies four problematic assumptions that go hand-in-hand with the positivist stance:

– that context is a form of information. From this follows the notion that you can make a “context object,” that everything relevant to the understanding of a given situation can be encoded as the single state of a computational system;
– that it is delineable, i.e. given the above, that there is some stable way of determining what constitutes “relevancy” and what does not;
– that it is stable – reasonably self-explanatory, I’d think;
– and that context and activity are separable, so if I am drinking coffee at the Wayne’s on Yrjönkatu, “drinking coffee” is the action of interest, and the Wayne’s, the weather, who I am with, and what I’m wearing are merely increasingly elaborate ways of describing an envelope inside which that activity proceeds, and which we’re choosing to call “context.”

If you’re inclined to accept a positivist construction of things, the only real problem remaining for you as a would-be developer of context-aware applications is one of representation: how do you best model and encode the apparatus of objects and states in the world which between them determine the relevant context for a given activity?

But Dourish argues (persuasively, I think) that this is the wrong question. For him, this mysterious thing context is something that only be arrived at through interaction – “an achievement, rather than an observation; an outcome, rather than a premise.” It’s relational in the deepest sense of the word, a state of being that arises out of the shared performance and understanding of two or more parties (actors, agents, what have you).

And why do we want to characterize this state of being in the first place? “[T]o be able to use the context in order to discriminate or elaborate the meaning of the user’s activity.” That’s it.

This points back to Dey, Salber and Abowd’s earlier definition of context as “implicit situational information” – in fact, any information “that can be used to characterize the situation of an entity…a person, place or object that is considered relevant to the interaction between a user and an application, including the user and the applications themselves.” And this is useful, or even necessary, because, as Lucy Suchman had already argued, most of the dispositive factors in human interaction tend to become explicit only in the event of some default or breakdown in communication.

In other words, we do all this work to capture facts about the environment in which an activity transpires in order to infer the meaning of that activity to its participants. Once we have that in hand, we can propose appropriate services, interface modes, alerts and so forth – services that will seem to “effortlessly” and even “magically” anticipate desire. And therefore make good on the Weiserian promise/premise still embedded in most contemporary ubicomp scenarios, however occult it’s become.

That’s the work that “context” does in interaction design. And that understood, maybe we can now unpack together the shorthand definition I offered last week. If Dourish, particularly, persuades us that robust context “awareness” is the very definition of a Hard Problem, that any static encoding of such an awareness is in itself problematic, and that the tools and methods engineers tend to trust and rely upon are constitutionally ill-suited to the attempt, my question is: why even bother? (This is especially true when modeling human behavior with any sensitivity is, shall we say, external to the envelope of demonstrated competence on the part of whatever development organization you work for, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.)

Why even bother to do all the work of reconstructing the unwieldy, ill-defined actor-networks that make up our lives in real time, that is, just to anticipate desire by a few seconds? Don’t try to model and infer; do recognize instead the simple, material constituents of the local potential for action.

And twelve hundred words downstream, this finally leads us back to the (comparatively rather stripped-back) definition of context awareness I offered last week: that a mobile device’s “capabilities and available interface modalities at any given moment are largely if not entirely determined by the other networked objects around it.”

Is this a lasting way of ducking the hard problems? No, not really: everything Dourish argues still holds, and will assuredly still sneak back in during the design of the above. Providing for an acceptably good user experience will still require subtlety, finesse, discretion, and other things chronically in short supply in technical development organizations. But what it is is a way of being parsimonious about the interaction design challenges our organizations do take on, with an eye toward reducing the complications of context (and the attendant opportunities for default, misunderstanding, misfire, time-wasting, and humiliation) to some manageable minimum.

Is this not so terribly far from what Yvonne Rogers means, in suggesting that we move on from Weiser? You bet. Am I happy with such a relatively constrained scope of ambition? For the moment, sure. Fair enough?

16 responses to “More songs about context and mood: A deeper dive into definitions”

  1. Chris Dent says :

    “what it is is a way of being parsimonious about the interaction design challenges our organizations do take on”

    This is excellent stuff. So often in design there is too much to worry about. Being able to say “Look, we can’t do anything with that at the moment, just leave it alone” is a very useful tool.

  2. Etienne says :

    Althought i agree with your argument, i don’t understand the link with your conclusion.

    Re-reading lately “garfinkel and ethnomethodolody” by Heritage striked me back with the notion of “accountability” that i would suggest you could introduce in your reasonning.

    My understanding of that notion (from my french point of view) is the crutial importance of “accountability” in everyday construction of meanings & interactions. That notion in crutial for the users to be able to build an undestanding of both the actions underway and participate to the permanent redefinition of the environment at anytime (both accounting for the “context” definition ?).

    So the “accountability” of “others networked objects around it” seems to me more fair : actual surrounding objects capacities is only a part of the equation… Things you’re not aware are available or know how to use are harder to exploit(?!)

    Designing “context aware” interaction would be in this case to build “accountable” interaction to make it understandable in a situation, allowing for a “flowing” transactional experience. That experience is a negociation to define that “context” in a reflexive way.

    …hum… not sure to be clear on this one…

  3. AG says :

    Well, Etienne, that’s the thing: it’s my conclusion. I’m sure not suggesting that it’s Paul’s, or Yvonne’s, or anyone else’s but mine. It’s just a way of curtailing an ambition that is likely to get us into trouble as designers – certainly at present-day processing capacities, and likely for the foreseeable future.

    As far as “accountability” goes, if I’m understanding your gloss on Garfinkel correctly, I think that was what I was trying to get at by asking that ubiquitous systems be self-disclosing – the second of my five principles for the ethical development of ubiquitous computing. Do let me know if you think I’ve understood you correctly.

  4. Etienne says :

    You sure have. My reaction was a reformulating to be sure i accounted correctly your point of view… and as you pointed there is no “absolute” definition obviously(or shall i say “objective”, final ?).

  5. Etienne says :

    (and i enjoyed your book obviously : many thnks)

  6. Stefan Constantinescu says :

    Extending the conversation we had during coffee, coupled with this blog post (essay), I can safely say that you’ve changed my views on data mining.

    A spime in one country is a spime in another country, but what someone does with that spime during their day versus someone else is something that most likely failed to be programmed into said spime from day one.

    Instead these actions should be collected and sent back to the spime producer who then keeps in constant touch with said spimes and updates them on their new abilities.

    Now will the data the spime producer collates be given freely to other services so they know what that spime can do or will others have to watch all the spimes around the world and build their own database?

    When I use the word spime, I extend it past its original meaning of a networked object to include a human being as well.

    We, as humans, learn by observing, some of us share our observations.

    What happens when we give objects that capability? What happens when objects know what you do with them, can tell all the other clones that “hey, we can do this too!” and then intrinsically mean something new on a daily basis?

    It’s like that book you always read, that picture you always look at or that movie you always watch, yet experience something different every single time. Can that same feeling of discovery be brought to services?

    Oh how I wonder.

  7. v says :

    does context-aware computing’s user experience always risk of being lovecraftian? ;)

    thomas erickson has commentary on context-aware computing that resonates with your comments above.

    erickson, being familiar with the efforts of the computer science AI community, writes: “[…] computers can detect, aggregate and portray information, constructing “cue-texts” that people can read, interpret and act on. In short, context-aware computing would do better to emulate the approach taken in scientific visualization rather than trying to reenact AI’s attempts at natural language understanding and problem solving.” Source:

    after reading your and erickson’s text, i find myself thinking how the project of building “context-aware” computing is like carving totems? :)

  8. Larry Irons says :

    Adam, I like the overall point. I have forwarded a paper to you privately that I wrote a couple of years back after reading your book that aligns with the approach. Here are a few paragraphs that speak to the distinctions made:

    “Dourish (2004) and Greenfield (2006) each offer insights on the challenges involved in “seamful” design. Designs for ubiquitous computing typically construe seams as technical in nature, i.e. parts of the technical architecture that cause the service to fail. In other words, instances in which the technical artifact, say a cell phone, loses its signal also shift the attention of the person using it from continuing with their activity and forces their attention to the signal strength and whether they can regain it by changing location (Chalmers and Galani 2004, p. 245). A seamful design might provide the person using the phone with the ability to know when signal differences exist between adjacent wireless cells, rather than making the information inaccessible and “handled automatically at a level beneath presentation of the interface” (Greenfield 2006, p. 138).

    Yet, the infrastructure of context in ubiquitous computing also consists of the routine ways in which people encounter spaces of experience. The seams between components of physical infrastructure are not the only basis for spaces of experience. They also relate to the way designers embed those infrastructures into existing cultural practices. Designing a space for experience involves more than defining a set of rules governing activities by people who occupy particular positions in three-dimensional space, say a longitude and latitude, and automatically adjusting the feature sets or capabilities of a mobile communications device to accord with the place. In other words, developing mobile communication devices with different modes that allow users to prioritize different settings depending on the context, i.e. work, entertainment, personal, social, static, mobile, is certainly feasible as long as the device’s location sensing is precise enough (seldom the case) and people are willing to go through the process of managing the settings (Schybergson and Beeston 2006). However, automatically triggering the mode based on the person’s physical location is not likely to work smoothly when people mix modes, which people do because the technology affords it. People bring work home and bring home to work. They even take work to the playground while their children play. On good days, they sometimes bring play to work.

    Designing for a space of experience involves providing opportunities for engagement that permit people to make sense of their current place. “Place derives from a tension between connectedness and distinction, rather than from a three-dimensional structure” (Harrison and Dourish 1996, p.67). In other words, a sense of place results from the practical actions of people in spaces, resulting in the transformation of those same spaces. “Space is the opportunity, and place is the understood reality” (Harrison and Dourish 1996, p. 70).”

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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  3. The song of context | aboutCREATION - 25 August 2008
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