Understanding mobile contexts

S. Tamminen, A. Oulasvirta, K. Toiskallio, and A. Kankainen, “Understanding mobile contexts,” Personal Ubiquitous Comput., no. 8, pp. 135–143, 2004. [PDF]


This paper describes an ethmomethodologically inspired study of 25 participants in Helsinki. The authors were interested in understanding the challenges that ubiquitous computing has to face because of the changing context of the user. The authors wrote their implications thinking about phisical devices mor than thinking about services.

Starting from the definition of context in the HCI field, the authors describe how scholars did not agree on a single definition of context. Their starting point was that contexts are always determined by their specific use situations in relation with the motives, plans, other poeple, mobile computers, and the like. They believe that by explicating the actions and resources by which people go about, they can gain insight on how mobile contexts get done and the extent by which these can be modeled and recognized by ubiquitous devices. The authors organized a group of 25 participants that they shadowed and interviewed during the course of 3 days.

Their storyline was divided into travel episodes consisting of temporally organized action patterns depicting a meaningul journey between two places. A special emphasis was given to finding nodal events, where an action transformed the present context into another recognizable context (e.g., reading the newspaper on the metro).

They describe 5 characteristics of mobile contexts: 1) situational acts within planned ones, actions performed in ad-hoc manner during the journey. Plans do not simply determine action (Suchman). 2) claiming personal an group spaces, users create space around themselves for the actions they are about to take. 3) social solutions to problem sin navigation, seeking help through the social channel. 4) temporal tensions, situations where time becomes problematic in relation to the action at hand and where, at the same time, the temporal aspect of a situation is actively used to orient action. 5) multitasking, social conventions might reduce some cognitive load.

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