Why users do what they do, when, where, how, and what they do it with

Reading Time: 3 minutes

OK, so that's a long title.

It's why we use a bit of jargon in user experience (UX).

We call "why users do what they do, when, where, how, and what they do it with" context of use.

It's a crucial piece, or, rather, set, of information.

If you know who your users are, what they're trying to get done, why the want to do it, and how they will interact with it – including the environment and circumstances they're in – you will have a really clear picture of what your product or service needs to do to make that happen.

It's critical to know, because – well, basically, if you don't know this stuff, failure is an absolute certainty.

Using a mobile phone on an underground train is a very different experience compared to using a desktop computer in a quiet office.

Being connected to the internet at 70MBPS makes things feel very different compared to a crappy GPRS connection somewhere in the boonies.

Desperately trying to seek medical help is not the same experience as ordering a pizza.

Context matters

Our context of use: a man sitting at a desk with a large computer screen
Our context of use:  sitting at a desk in a nice, quiet office, with (at least one) large computer screen, physical keyboard and mouse
So its doubly important that we, as designers, understand that. We mustn't project our context of use onto our users.

But we do. We all do it, and I'm as guilty as anyone else.

It's just so …natural to project your experince on to everyone else's.

So, generally, when we design, we think about our own experience. It looks good to us. Everything makes sense. There's a logical progression. Read this. Click that. Download this.

It's easy, and – let's be honest – lazy to assume that everyone at the receiving end of our work sees what we see.

The truth is, though, that many – possibly most –  dont.

Some data

The impetus for this post is that we've been running a LinkedIn campaign targeting the tech sector in California.

All the data we've seen demonstrates that we're finding the right people, getting their  interest, and not managing to get them to take the next step we want them to.

We had a meeting where we agreed that we didn't know why this was happening.

This bothered me. So I decided I'd build on the excellent work of my colleagues and see if I could find any more insight.

Here's what I found.

  • The updates we sponsor are finding the right people. They may not be budget holders or decision makers, but they have influence
  • The content we're promoting is genuinely of interest to this audience. They are reading this stuff. I've watched them
  • Most engagement is with in-app browser in the iOS LinkedIn app
  • 3/4 visits are on mobile 
  • Most visits happen early in the morning – before people leave for work, or on their commute
  • The longest time on page is around lunchtime

What's actually happening

Our rosy picture is not holding up here. My interpretation is that this is more realistic.

Storyboard showing people using mobile devices while commuting, or in social situations
What's actually happening: people using mobile devices while commuting, or in social situations

People are engaging with our content. But mostly on their phone.

Mostly on their iPhone, to be honest.

They are checking LinkedIn on their way to work, perhaps before they set off, because they have a minute or 2 to spare.

They are on the bus, (context: the rail network in California is practically non-existent; if they're driving, they're not online, though car-sharing is a possibility; many tech firms run hi-tech buses to their campuses) possibly on a not-too-great mobile data connection (it's hilly in CA, and even Google can't override topology).

They may be on a break, talking at the watercooler or grabbing coffe.

It looks like just after lunch is the time when they spend most time with us.

Most importantly: they are on mobile.

Their context of use is:

I'll just check LinkedIn while I'm on the bus … 

… that looks interesting …

… pretty cool ….

… possibly share/like (because one tap)

Oh. I'm checking LinkedIn. Close browser. Back to updates.

… because 'checking LinkedIn' is what they are doing.


  1. Design for a mobile experience
  2. Go out and and experience it on a bus 
  3. It's OK to assume, as long as you're ready to shred those assumptions. Make identifying and testing them to destruction the first thing you do


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I'm a service designer in Scottish Enterprise's unsurprisingly-named service design team. I've been a content designer, editor, UX designer and giant haystacks developer on the web for (gulp) over 25 years.

2 Replies to “Why users do what they do, when, where, how, and what they do it with”

  1. Nice post. But….Is that the only reason why they aren't engaging further than the bright shiny info we have offered them?  How do we know they are 'the right people'?

    1. We can see from LinkedIn and Google Analytics data that the people who responded to this campaign are based in California and work in the tech sector. We can also profile their seniority, gender, age range and other demographics. 

      We know how long they spent on page, and how far they read.

      We could, theoretically, detect what users are doing using techniques like https://github.com/KrauseFx/user.activity

      But we don't do that. Instead, we infer from context of use.

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