Innovation

Context is Everything – Especially in Design

June 26, 2020

Have you ever visited a new city on the recommendation of a friend who knows that city well – and come away wondering why they were so adamant that you would absolutely LOVE it like they do? Instead, you found it stressful, foreign to you and difficult to navigate? There’s a reason for that. Context is key.

Everyone experiences different things and understands those experiences differently, so you’ll always get different answers and perspectives from different people. Those answers will always be based in their own context and understanding of their own experiences. You’ll never be in a room of people where they’ve all had exactly the same experiences and be able to give you exactly the same advice/perspectives.

I’ll use my hometown of Annapolis, MD as an example to illustrate the difference between micro perspectives vs. big picture views. (For the sake of this analogy, imagine not having your smart phone or friendly local tour guide with you.)

Take a look at 3 common views that visitors to Annapolis may see: 

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com Above: 3 views found in Downtown Annapolis

Visitors in the first frame would enjoy a view of the majestic Maryland State Building. In the middle shot, the visitor may have seen or even used the ATM mounted on the side of this historic-building-turned-modern-bank. And visitors in the right frame might choose from miscellaneous shops and restaurants, enjoying the cobblestone pavers and quaint buildings as they go.

If a person is dropped off at a specific location, they wouldn’t be able to understand the layers of context that make the place that much more dynamic and enjoyable to navigate and experience. In other words, if they only have context for the shop or restaurant they came to see, they’ll miss the rest of the experience that could be had by adding in the context layers that connect shops, buildings, streets and people.

By backing out just one layer for additional context, the visitor would get to see those frames in relation to one another, showing them how Main Street forks off to the right connecting to Francis Street, providing this iconic view:

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com Above: Downtown Annapolis; Main Street on left, Francis Street on right leading to Capitol building; note the church steeple at the end of Main Street on the left, view obscured by branches in this photo.

Of course, when we add in more layers of human complexity to include interpersonal context (who’s who and lives/works where; relationships, memories of certain places and people, etc.), historic context, cultural context, culinary context (best places to eat)­, etc., suddenly our visitor’s experience becomes far more connected with that of the person who feels at home in this place.

Context is everything. It shapes the meaning in all communication. Without context you can’t communicate effectively. – TIFFANY EATON, UX PLANET

Re-designing a System with Context in Mind

Last spring, NewWave welcomed an influx of new team members joining us in our work in the Fed health tech space. As with any major changes in an organization, clear internal communication is imperative as people navigate new territory and collaborate together in new ways and as is also common, this fast-paced growth will inevitably shed light on areas of the user experience of a system that could be improved to accommodate the shifting team makeup.

Some of the staff feedback in the first few months of our growth included mentions like “I feel like I don’t know what’s going on in the company” and “I want to find people quickly,” etc.

“We saw a need for change and put together a workgroup to modernize the way our internal resources are shared, and provide additional information and tools based on staff feedback. Our hope was to improve our staff user experience with the systems we use.” says Ashley Norris, Director Workplace and Design.

Perhaps most importantly, we examined what assumptions were being made about how clearly and consistently communications and resources were being presented.

Building a culture of connection through shared context

Even amid massive levels of growth, NewWave is a tight-knit team and highly aware of the value of a collaborative environment. We understand that those who work in a collaborative and connected environment are able to put less of their valuable energy into the nuts and bolts of how to get something done in a new space, and more energy into being creative, productive, innovative and confident in their work.

And so, our exploratory efforts were launched further forward to strategically use the tools at hand in a more intentionally connected manner, so that a staff member could have a clear path to self-service connection to resources, processes, information about all programs and departments across the organization. Interviewing and observing our staff members drew insights about the plethora of communication and information-sharing systems they used internally, but one common thread remained amongst the majority: as a Microsoft Gold Managed Partner, NewWave embraces O365 products and to this point, Microsoft Teams and SharePoint have prevailed clearly as the most commonly utilized platforms.

With that common thread in mind, a modernization plan was developed that would transform the user interface and usability of SharePoint and Teams sites at NewWave, and re-wire the programs they were already comfortable with into a better-connected, intranet system that would improve the internal experience of our staff members.

Fast-forward to mid-March, when the world seemed to come to a grinding halt, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team determined that given the unexpected shift to 100% remote work, it was now even more, not less, imperative to connect our teams.

In May, the implementation team including members from Workplace Experience, Microsoft Services, Creative Services, Human Resources and Infrastructure teams, released the first phase of the new WaveCentral employee portal.

This contribution to NewWave’s digital transformation effort creates a virtual home-base, both centralizing and liberating communication to increase transparency among teams. The new employee portal includes the following:

  • Company news and announcements
  • Easy access to NewWave’s Corporate blog and social media activities
  • Landing pages for each department and program are owned by teams as a place to connect staff users to resources and information they need regarding that team’s work and services
  • Shared, corporate calendar provides a high-level overview of our events
  • Information about the NewWave Foundation’s events, blog and involvement
  • Quick links, easily accessible on every page, leading to all corporate tools we need to access, including the brand new robust WaveCentral Help Center, powered by ServiceNow

This is only the beginning, but the WaveCentral implementation team has made a significant contribution to pushing NewWave forward by maturing its internal matrix of resources and connection among staff.

Kudos to the collaborative, cross-functional team who worked together to build something great ‘for the greater good’ within NewWave itself.

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” – EERO SAARINEN, ARCHITECT

Breanna Wheeler
WRITTEN BY

Breanna Wheeler

Director of Creative Services
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