Every year, the one event I most look forward to is the Front-End Design Conference here in St Pete. Front-End Conf is an event to celebrate the wonderful people in our industry and to share our knowledge. It’s been around for 6 years (I’ve attended  the last 5), and always involves a wide array of interesting and informative talks about the best practices for website design and development, new industry trends and inspiration (our own fearless leader Andi inspired the crowd with her presentation on designing in the browser).

This year, Matt Carver from Big Spaceship’s presentation, Contextually Aware Web Development, really caught my attention.  (If you’re interested, he also wrote a great post on the topic over on their blog.)

Imagine what we could do on a website if we knew the context in which the user was visiting. Sites could not only change based on what kind of device the user is viewing from (desktop, phone, tablet, etc; which is also known as responsive web design), but also based on what the user is doing, and in what kind of environment.

An absurd amount of data

These days, we have access to an absurd amount of data about the users on our sites. For instance, we know (with varying levels of accuracy) …

  • How big the screen is that you’re using
  • If your device has the ability to “hover” over elements on the page
  • Where you were before you visited our site
  • If you’re walking down the street
  • What time of day you’re visiting
  • Where you’re visiting from
  • What the weather is like based on where you’re accessing the site from

Good to know, but what can we do with it?

We’ve talked before about the importance of surprise and delight, so let’s start with a fun example: imagine your website design features the horizon as your header. Knowing what time of day it is for your visitor, I could make the sun actually move. During the morning the sun can be on the left side, with sunrise colors; during the afternoon it can be in the middle of the sky; and during the evening, I could move it over to the right side and have sunset colors. We could even swap out the sun for the moon during the evening – and have stars in the sky!

An easy and already prevalent use of contextually-aware design are news and weather websites that detect where the visitor is and automatically display the weather for their area without requiring the visitor to provide any information.

As another example, modern mobile device technology opens up the potential to analyze the amount of ambient light where the visitor is – their actual physical location. With this information we could adjust the design to provide an optimal experience – brighter in a dark room or increased contrast in open sunlight. With access to websites on mobile devices increasing by the second, enhancing your visitor’s experience in the real world as they interact with your website could become the next big edge you need.

It’s all about the experience

Matt made this excellent point:

The less reliant we are on the visitor to input information, the more personalized and unobtrusive we can make their experience.

Your visitors are busy, and they have a million other distractions on their devices that are pulling them away from your site. Our job is to make it is simple, unobtrusive and as little work as possible for your visitors to have a great experience. As the web tools we use every day gain more and more access to the contextual information about the user, their experiences can be enhanced and tailored to them, transforming them from a casual visitor to a loyal customer.