Inferring context from the environment

Magic Ink makes the claim that a lot of what we think of as “interaction design” is actually busywork. Re-creating state, clicking around to tell the computer what we’re interested in, is unnecessary work in most cases when we can use contextual information to make a best guess.

A person determines her surroundings through the five human senses. Software doesn’t operate in a vacuum, either; through connections to hardware and other software, it can sense much about the user’s situation. Some examples of context clues in the software’s environment include:

  • Date and time. Time is one of the fundamental dimensions along which we organize our lives, and in any data space with a temporal dimension, “now” is almost always the prime landmark. Because users often seek information on demand, information related to “now” or “soon” is often the most relevant. Fortunately, every general-purpose computer knows when “now” is. A person using a software bus schedule, for example, should never have to hunt for the next bus.

  • Geographical location. Similarly, the most interesting spatial landmark is usually “here.” Unfortunately, this currently can be harder to determine automatically, but the payoff is enormous. Obviously, a software roadmap needs to know the user’s location, but so does the bus schedule, as well as business listings, transportation planners, travel guides, and much other information software.

  • Physical environment. Given a time and location, many details of the physical environment, such as the weather, are just a network connection away. Consider a travel guide that suggests parks when sunny and museums when rainy.

  • Other information software, such as open websites. By reading some information, the user is indicating a topic of interest. All other information software should take heed. Consider a person reading the website of an upcoming stage play. When she opens her calendar, the available showings should be marked. When she opens a map, she should see directions to the playhouse. When she opens a restaurant guide, she should see listings nearby, and unless the play offers matinees, they shouldn’t be lunch joints.

  • Documents created with manipulation software. Creating some information indicates an even stronger topic of interest. Consider a person who requests information about “cats” while writing a paper. If the paper’s title is “Types and Treatment of Animal Cancer,” the information should skew toward feline medical data. The title “History of Egypt” indicates interest in ancient feline worship instead. And if the paper contains terms related to building construction, “cats” probably refers to the decidedly non-feline Caterpillar heavy machinery.

  • Email. Names, addresses, and phone numbers in recent email clearly constitute valuable hints. A recipient who opens a calendar should find the sender’s schedule juxtaposed with her own. When she opens a map, addresses in the email should be marked. But beyond that, recent correspondence can indicate current activities, and an email archive as a whole can describe the user’s characteristics and interests. Consider a person who requests information about “racing.” The fields of running, bicycles, and cars have distinct sets of terminology; if one set regularly shows up in the person’s conversations, “racing” isn’t so ambiguous.