Contextual Tools Work Better

February 13, 2007 at 1:46 pm 2 comments

I’m convinced that an important design consideration is the provision of contextual tools.

I first thought of this after reading of ‘book darts,’ a sort-of-substitute for the ubiquitous dog-ear in books.  I found the idea of book dart too much work compared to a simple dog ear – though they describe them as line keeper, not just a new type of book mark.  (As a line keeper, they sound OK, as a dog ear has much less resolution and can only point you broadly to the bottom or the top of a page, if you mark the top or bottom corner).

But when you’re reading a (paper) book, you never run out of pages from which to form a dog-ear.  They don’t fall out.  In fact that’s a big complaint about dog-ears: they “damage” the book, yet one person’s damage is another’s guide to the good stuff, aka annotation.

In any case this design principle, of embedded tools, must apply to other areas. The ‘thing’ itself is the tool. 

con·text 1. The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning. 2. The circumstances in which an event occurs; a setting.

Context “to weave together,” from com- “together” + textere “to weave”

Convene – “unite, be suitable, agree,” from com- “together” + venire “to come”

con·ven·ient 1. Suited or favorable to one’s comfort, purpose, or needs 2. Easy to reach; accessible

com– or col– or con– or cor–pref. Together; with; joint; jointly: commingle.

Embed – To cause to be an integral part of a surrounding whole

Other examples of contextual tools – writing in book vs. extra-book annotation in separate notebooks, foil dinners – the foil doubles as the plate, the same for ice cream cones, and soup in bread bowls.  Counting on fingers, hammers are designed with nail removers, hyperlinks embedded in documents, calendar functionality coexists with email, filenames as “tags,”….

Somewhat related, consider contextual clues:

In The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown, Duguid, is described an historian snorting ancient letters to see if they contained traces of vinegar which was used to try and prevent the spread of Cholera in order to chart the historic spread of the disease. 

In Decoding the Universe, Seife talks about how language is filled with redundancy and even with muddled text, contextual clues can help you piece it together.

Taken a step further, in our information environment, new software tools should be presented in context, e.g. Word is a word processor that I will teach you to use to write your report.  Excel will help you manage the data from that lab experiment.  Use Google to find pdf or Word reports about, australian slugs using advanced search terms. 

You wouldn’t teach someone how to use a hammer without nails, or without something to pound them into.  And actually building a birdhouse or a bookshelf using hammer and nails would help show the true value of the tool, as opposed to just pounding nails into scrap, which wouldn’t.


Entry filed under: feed my pet brain, Information Architecture, information literacy.

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