Context is important online

Multiple faces expressionsEvery day you will visit a website which you have never been to before and say to yourself  “What….?” That’s because the website lacks clarity as to its message – you have no idea what to do, where to go or what benefits it might bring you. However, if you were to question the web designer or the owners of the business they’d say “But it is obvious…!”

The difference is they understand the context, they already have the background information and prior knowledge necessary to understand things.

Similarly, consider switching on the radio and hearing the phrase “great tits like coconuts”. You might, at first think you have stumbled into a rather rude and offensive discussion about female anatomy because you lack the context of the programme which is actually about the food that you should serve up to garden birds.

Human beings make relatively instant decisions, but if the context is misunderstood we can make the wrong inference. Walk into a meeting late and hear the boss shouting and ranting and you might think that the individual is extremely cross with someone. That’s until you sit down and realise they were merely mimicking a TV programme that was on last night. Lack of context could lead to the wrong decision by you.

New research shows how important context is to human beings. According to common “popular psychology” folklore you can tell someone’s emotional state from their facial expression. This new study put that notion to the text by using photo-editing software to put the faces of tennis match winners onto the bodies of their losing opponents. It turned out that people found it difficult to analyse things; in fact the “happy” faces put on the “sad” bodies were interpreted as negative. In other words, we don’t assess emotion solely from the face, but from the context of the entire body. It is an example of the need for us to use context to analyse things.

So, when it comes to your website is the context immediately understandable to your visitors? If they have to work at it to find out the context, they’ll end up with the wrong message.

Context includes the colours, the kind of design, the fonts you use, the images on the page and the words in headlines and “page furniture” (the titles and so on). But is also includes the name of your website, the presence or absence of logos, of advertising and other peripheral features.

Often people concentrate on the “main business” of their web pages, forgetting that everything around that main content is a potent mix of signals setting the context. So, rather than focus on the main aspect of your website this week, perhaps it is worth taking time-out to consider all that surrounding context to be sure it is sending the right subsconcsious signals.

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