When I brief one of our young designers on a new project, I’m a “start-from-the-very-beginning” guy. I’ll grab a cup of coffee, sit in a quiet spot with the designer, and methodically walk them through everything I know about the client: background and culture, market position, circumstances that brought them to ThoughtForm, possible project roadblocks, and what the client likes for lunch.
Basically, I’m establishing context. When it comes to gathering context, you can never get it too early and you can never have too much. Anything can have a bearing upon the project.
Here’s why I’m context-obsessed. It’s transformative. When you apply it to anything, clarity happens…even to the most dense, complicated, and unwieldy subject. An easy way to learn this for yourself is to take a subject out of context. There’s no point of reference. Any logic that might have come from understanding environment or history or audience is missing. So you’re left to flounder. It’s like driving blindfolded. You have no idea where you’re going.
Our clients work in companies where complexity is a given. Systems are layered on top of other systems. Brands make way for sub-brands. And what was once a clear message becomes a family of clear messages. Sound familiar?
At ThoughtForm, we like the challenge of complexity. In fact, the more moving parts a problem has the better. But we wouldn’t be quite this fearless about complexity if we didn’t learn how to first gather context to gain understanding. Here are some rules-of-thumb on the best way to harness the power of context.
1. Set the stage
We learned a long time ago to fight the urge to jump into the middle of a project and look for a quick solution. Not a good idea. When you jump into a complex problem too soon and without the right background, your solution might be (will be) superficial.
When we plan out projects, we always start with some type of discovery phase that entails lots of questions and conversations with the client. This research and understanding sets a foundation of knowledge for us that is invaluable. It enables us to take the second step, and the third step, toward a solution or deliverable. Always start a project by exploring the problem and understanding the world it lives in.
2. Take your time
There are no shortcuts here. Shallow context is just as bad as no context at all. Be thoughtful in your questions. Plan them out ahead of time and make sure you’re listening to the answers. If you don’t listen carefully, you might be missing important nuances. So invest this time upfront and document what you learned before moving into the pen-on-paper stage of a project.
3. Be thorough
There are several different types of gathering context, and together they paint a complete picture of a particular subject or problem. Considering any one of these contexts on its own will bring value. But to really understand the big picture, engage all of them.
This context positions your subject or problem as a point in time. What came before it, and how did you get here? What types of solutions were tried in the past? Any successes? Understanding the history of the problem might suggest a trajectory for moving forward.
Here, we establish a use-case and ask who is using the information or who is the audience for the communication. What is the user’s level of familiarity with the subject? Are they well-seasoned users or novices? Do you have a captive audience or are there distractions? What should the user’s take-away be? How long should the experience take?
Like historic context, this one is time-based, but at a much more micro-level. Time context describes an action or event within the context of a day or week. When will this information be shared or used? How long will it take? What is likely to happen right before? What will happen next?
Stepping back, we also want to understand the environment around the problem. How does this particular problem affect what people do and how they relate with each other? Where does it create pain and why? What things might stand in the way of a solution’s success?
We also step outside the walls of the company to see a bigger picture. What market forces are at play? Are we seeing patterns or trends that predict the future? What are other companies doing?
Establishing context around a project can be a very studied practice. You just have to know the right questions to ask, and within seconds, realizations begin to happen that make the complexity seem more approachable. You feel more oriented to the problem. Hopefully these rules-of-thumb and example questions will help you build your own toolkit for establishing context.
We have other ideas about managing complexity. Go to Six Clarity Methods for more advice from your partners-in-clarity here at ThoughtForm.
John Sotirakis is a design strategist and shareholder at ThoughtForm. He helps clients achieve success by transforming their complex stories into clear, engaging, and beautifully-designed communications. (And likes to establish context over lunch.)