Context Circles in Mobile Design

The importance of user experience should never be underestimated when developing mobile applications. If an app fails to deliver during the first experience, the consequence is that you lose a customer. Context circles allow you to better understand customers and craft a more compelling design!

A Perfect Experience Does Not Exist

It's impossible to develop the ultimate user experience because every user experiences an application differently. This is due to cultural and personal aspects such as the society in which we live, personal tastes, and other various factors that affect the perception of an application.

In short, there are different ways to use an application and it isn't always easy to understand how the user experiences your mobile application. Context circles are a tool that allow us to better understand users and anticipate the effect while developing applications.

Three Contexts

A context circle is actually a thought process. Context circles are a way to do research before you actually design your application or begin coding. People often underestimate the importance of strong research before an application is built. During this kind of research, a member of the target group you're building your application for is usually involved (for example, a teenager or elderly woman). It is also perfectly possible to research with only a pen, paper, and common sense.

By investing an hour or two to decide for yourself how exactly the application should work and what exactly the desired reaction of users are, you can discover in a very early stage of the development process some of the pitfalls and strengths of your application. The key is to be critical and test your application up against reality. The use of the context circle method is extremely useful for this.

In this article, we'll have a look at three important context circles:

  • Physical context: Anticipates the physical setting and activity level of the user.
  • Technological context: This covers the design, hardware, operating system, and all other technological factors that influence how the user perceives your application.
  • Social context: This is for promotion and the social aspects of the internet that should always be used in a meaningful way.
context circle

Physical Context

As a developer, you are often too focused on only your application, while the entire user experience depends on external factors. An important first step to improve the user's experience is to understand how the user intends to utilize your application. In which environment does he or she uses it? At home? During travel? Are they in a hurry when the application is used? What external factors may cause the experience to be interrupted or cancelled? In short, understand the physical context the user might be in while he uses your application.

context circle

Let's make this concept a bit more specific. For example when you are playing a game on your smartphone, the chances are quite high that you are waiting on someone or that you're bored. However, you could be interrupted at any given moment. Imagine you're waiting for a train while playing a game and suddenly the train arrives, this means the experience of the game ends because you need to enter the train. However, you want the user to continue using the game he's playing at a later moment. Therefore you need to develop a pause button that is integrated in the game interface or perhaps just automatically save the game context when the app is closed. By creating scenarios like these, you can anticipate problems that may arise. After all, nobody wants to lose progress in a game because of an interruption!

In general people look at the physical context from two different angles: The setting (how much noise in the background, light from the sun, the room you're in, distractions, other people around you, etc.) and your activity (walking, driving, waiting for the bus, waiting in a line of people, cooking, shopping, etc.).

In short, if you predict why the user uses your application and in what situation he is most likely using the application, you can anticipate problems that the physical setting creates. As a developer, you are often focused on just your own application, but you must also remember that the entire user experience also depends on external factors.

The following questions will help you think about the physical context of your app:

  • In what location would the app be used the most?
  • What location based factors could disrupt the user's interaction?
  • Are there any ways my application could anticipate or respond to these interruptions?
  • Will the user be multitasking while using the application?
  • How can user activity (e.g. walking) disrupt the experience?
  • Is there anything the app can do to anticipate these user activities?
  • How can my application leverage the user's location?

Technological Context

Knowledge about the user makes your design and application stronger. Another important question to consider is what technology the user uses and technological knowledge the user has. Design choices are incredibly important. For example there's quite some fuss at the moment on skeuomorphism compared to flat design. A general rule is that the user should understand the interface of your application in just a few seconds. To summarize, keep your interface comprehensible.

context circle

The importance of testing should not be underestimated. For example it's possible that you perfectly understand the meaning of a newly designed icon, but your target audience may not because they have never seen anything like it before.

Usability testing in the form of paper prototypes is always useful during the development of an application. Doing so is fast, it's cheap, and you gain a lot of information through interaction with people from your target audience that may end up using your application. Knowledge about the user makes your design and application stronger. Paper prototyping, as the name suggests, is a prototype drawn on paper. Users interact with the paper sketches and you can mimic the actions of your application, and understand why a user makes certain choices. It gives you feedback on your application very early on in the design process.

The choice of which operating platform you initially develop for your app is also a decision to make while you research the technological context of your application. You must ask yourself some specific questions, such as how you'll use certain hardware, how heavy the application will be for the battery, and so on. An application which is expected to be light (for example a simple to-do application) shouldn't use a lot of battery power. Users won't like apps that use up a lot of battery power and may end up deleting the application. Again, keep the full context in mind as to what the user finds important when it comes to the technological aspects of your application.

Some simple questions you need to answer while thinking of the technological context are:

  • What operating systems should the app support?
  • What are the strengths of each supported operating system?
  • What kind of device features or sensors will the app use?
  • How much of the device's capacity should the app consume?
  • What are the technological expectations of my target market?
  • How can I provide what the targeted audience wants?
  • Does my application require an Internet connection?
  • How much Internet data will it send/receive?
  • How can I decrease the amount of data transfer required?
  • How can I protect stored user data?

Social Context

Use social media in such a fashion that it creates added value. The social context is undoubtedly the most challenging context to examine. The world is primarily interconnected through the internet. The influence of various social media and community websites should not be underestimated by the developer.

context circle

In the social context we examine how the social aspect of applications and the Internet can be used in a meaningful way. A share or like feature seems the norm nowadays, but you should also ask yourself whether it is relevant and generates added value for the user (or you).

Many different personal factors are included in the social context:

  • What's the goal of the user?
  • What's the purpose of your application?
  • How does the user interact with the application?
  • How much attention does the application require from the user?
  • How much attention will the user generally pay while using the application?
  • What functionalities does your application have?
  • How will the user use these functionalities?
  • How might the user use a functionality in a way that isn't intended?
  • How does the user react to the interface?
  • Does the user need to be connected to the internet for specific features?

When people think of the social context of their application they usually think of promotion as well. Promotion of an application can be tackled in many different ways and it's a good idea to think about how you'll promote it to potential users. Doing context circle research helps to find out the weak and strong aspects of your application, and naturally you want to use your strengths to promote your application. It's also important to think about different options in case certain parts of your promotion strategy fail.


Are you about to develop an application or are you in process of developing one? Think of these different contexts and how different factors may impact your application. Adequate research is required to develop an application that's actually concerned with the user's problems. After all, you should understand why a user would want to download your app in the first place before you start to build it! In short, your applications should be designed by humans and for humans!



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