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More on the importance of context April 11, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, gaming, Internet, social media, social networks, start-up, startups, user generated content, web 2.0.

I posted recently on the importance of context for social media sites; the need to be “easy to learn and hard to master”.

Two recent stories/posts have reminded me on the consequences of failing to adhere to this approach.

Viruoso Busker

The most recent was a story in Sunday’s Washington Post that I found via Paul Kedrosky. It tells what happens when Joshua Bell, one of the world’s finest violinists, plays his $3.5m Stradivari violin in a subway station in downtown Washington DC during the morning commute, looking like an ordinary busker.

He is not exactly appreciated. In forty five minutes he receives 27 donations totalling $32.17. Of 1070 passers by, exactly seven stop to listen. This is a guy who fills concert halls where the cheap seats are $100.

Context matters. People didn’t know what to expect, so they were not cognitively prepared to recognize the greatness of the performance

Conforming to web metaphors

The second was posted a couple of days after my original post. When Topix reinvented itself, Rich Skrenta (Topix’s CEO) wrote a much linked to post about what led to the relaunch. One of the team’s two insights was that there was:

… sort of a structural flaw with our news pages. They didn’t conform to any standard web page metaphor. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Back in 1995, when the web was new, visitors to a new site would lean forward, squint at the page, and try to figure out how it worked. The Southwest Airlines page was a picture of a check-in booth at the airport. You had to click on the picture of the phone to get the phone list, and so on.

That metaphor didn’t last. People don’t lean forward and squint at web pages to figure out how they work anymore. They instantly recognize — within 100 milliseconds — which class of site a page belong to — search result, retail browse, blog, newspaper, spam site, message board, etc. And if they don’t recognize what kind of page they’re on, they generally give up and hit the back button.

Our news pages didn’t conform to any standard metaphor. Some people thought they were search results. But they weren’t, our pure news search was a separate section of the site. Some people thought we were a newspaper, with human editors. Some visitors thought we were a blog. But our news items didn’t behave in very bloggy ways. Most people just didn’t know who we were or what the page was trying to do. Further confusing matters was our front page, which really didn’t have anything to do with the local news pages within the site. From the front we either looked like Google News or a national newspaper, depending on who you asked.

To use the words from my original post – the original Topix was not “easy to learn”, and users had a tough timing understanding what to do there.


In both of these cases, great content went unrecognized because users didn’t have a familiar frame of reference from which they could parse and hence appreciate the quality of the content. Once again, the takeaway is to make it cognitively easy on your users. Make sure that they know what to do at your site, and what to expect from it, as soon as they get there. In this case, quirky design, or sparse, stark design, is not your friend.

This is doubly important if many of your users are not “regulars” – they arrive via search or links, and not as part of habituated behaviour.

If they don’t “get it”, they won’t “get into it”.


1. The Complete Opposite - April 11, 2007

Importance of context

Check out this insightful article regarding the importance of context. Even the best product or service can be perceived as ordinary or even of low quality when taken out of context. It’s great to be reminded that doing one thing

2. Clyde Smith - April 11, 2007

“Context matters. People didn’t know what to expect, so they were not cognitively prepared to recognize the greatness of the performance”

I read these two posts and I appreciate the way you tie them together. However, if you’re talking about an audience of passersby on their way to work, it wasn’t the people who were not prepared. It was the performers who chose an inappropriate venue and therefore set themselves up for failure.

Of course, part of the problem here is that folks believe in the universality of art so once someone is world class they imagine that it’s evident for all to see. In this case, it also required people’s willingness to drop their own agenda and take on the agenda of an unknown performer playing an instrument for which most individuals today have no sense of what represents excellent playing.

I know this is a little over the top given that I do agree with the overall point you’re making, but I found the Washington Post account incredibly annoying for the kind of reasons I’m describing.

3. lawrence - April 11, 2007

Providing context, even on your deepest pages, is a huge challenge. Last month, the site that I work for saw about 3% of its total visits come through the home page. Every single page of your site needs to be able to deliver context to a first time visitor, and do it quickly.

4. Amisare Waswere - April 12, 2007

The 5 C’s: Components for Creating Compelling Competitive Sites

Joshua Bell, the virtuoso violinist didn’t get much attention because his playing is out of context. This is from the perspective of the playing (contents).

However, from the perspective of the audience (consumers), Joshua Bell is not getting the deserved attention because they are time poor at that time of the day (in the middle of rush hour) at that locale (train station) and with focussed tasks in mind (catching the train/going to work).

Had he been playing in a shopping mall, where the crowd is generally time rich (with time to kill and willing to be diverted & entertained), the response would possibly be quite different.

This reinforces your previous post on “Time Rich/Time Poor”: the importance of knowing your audience when building your site and other various posts on site designs.

Thus, the 5 C’s components in building compelling building sites are (as Jeremy has variously posted):

•Culture (Jeremy’s post, February 11),
•Consumers (Time rich/Time poor, March 19’s post),
•Context (To-day’s post)
•Contents (Amy Jo Kim’s game mechanics, March 28 & April 6’s posts) and
• Cerebral Creative endeavour (Lashing of it !!) (Hard work, March 14 & February 19’s posts)

Amisare Waswere

5. Eric Alterman - April 12, 2007

Context…one of my favorite subjects as it relates to community building.

Context will surely be the key for UGC and social networking growth over the next several years. It will take some adjustment, but web publishers will gradually embrace the notion that the purpose of editorial content is to inspire user participation within the context of their own sites.

Providing great editorial content is still critical, but no one likes a monologue…it’s all about getting the conversation going. By contributing videos, audio, photos, blogs, ratings and comments, users add another important dimension: personal context. And increasingly niche content invites deeper sub-context.

“Community in context” is the net result and it has its benefits. By making the transition from content creator to party host, publishers will see dramatic growth in traffic and ad inventory with comparable CPMs and a much more efficient cost structure.

Eric Alterman, Founder KickApps Corporation

6. purple motes » stop laughing at me - April 23, 2007

[…] consider carefully career development. As set out in my personal development plan, I’m working on conforming to standard web metaphors, smoothing out my quirks, and improving my presentation skills. Recently I gave a presentation at […]

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