18th September 2015

Designing better customer-centered communications with context & time

Customer communication is misunderstood. For many businesses, special offers, newsletters and product updates, all distributed via a single channel, constitute their entire communication strategy. It’s a one-size-fits-all marketing solution that focuses on what's important to a business. In most cases, little or no attention is paid to the information a customer actually needs, or, indeed, when they need it.


Effective customer communications must be designed as a whole. And designing an effective communication strategy depends on more than the words you use. Rather, choosing the right medium, and targeting the right customers at the right time, should be the basis of all communication strategies.

The context in which a customer receives information has a profound influence on its effectiveness. From the time of day, to lighting levels, to the signage – all play a part in determining how customers experience your messages.

By understanding and designing around your users’ contexts, you can ensure that the right message is received by the largest number of people at the right time.

Physical context

A whole range of physical factors can influence how receptive people will be to communication. Are they indoors or outdoors? Are they sitting down or standing up?

customer communication

Public transport is a good example of a service where these physical contexts significantly influence people's behaviour and attention. Whether it’s light, temperature, or the number of other travellers, all have their part to play in how a user interacts with a transport service.

These conditions can help or hinder how users interact with your communications. Noisy roads prevent lengthy concentration. Cold environments (and cold hands) prevent long interactions. Sunshine makes reading a screen all but impossible. Yet transport providers push customers towards applications and websites requiring multiple inputs and interactions to receive schedules and status updates.

Some, however, do this well. Transport for London has recognised these contexts by turning bus screens into detailed information platforms. Timetables, estimated arrivals and traffic details are all available at the bus stop itself, along with data from other forms of transport. They are even testing communication technologies in buses that provide contextual information to commuters, such as the number of available seats.

At a glance, users can receive information in a location most conducive to a message being received.

Time context

Communication isn’t just about what you say. It’s about when you say it too. Choosing when to communicate means much more than customising messages according to the seasonal calendar. It means delivering information at the precise moment a customer is likely to need it.

Users interact with different devices at different times of the day. Email might be an effective medium during the morning commute and business hours, but is less successful at dinner time.

Take Scandinavian Airlines: 22 hours prior to a flight’s departure, they send their customers a reminder SMS to check-in. Simply reply ‘Yes’, and you’re checked in. Informative, quick, and timely, as any good communication should be.

Time context informs not only when to communicate, but also the amount of time a user has to interact with a product or service. No matter the message, if communication requires too much effort, users are likely to ignore it.

Take Rhombus, which provides businesses and customers with a simple way to exchange payments through SMS. The intensive solution to accepting payments would be for each business to build an individual payment system, and ask each user to go through a lengthy registration or payment form. By replacing a complex task with a conversation, businesses and customers are able to communicate and transact in a simple, ubiquitous medium that requires minimum input from the user.

Location context

Business like to talk about ‘location aware’ and ‘sensor enabled’ communication, but in reality they often fail to deliver. These concepts remain either buzzwords or niche products and services, which have limited consumer application.

But contextual communications don’t require beacons and complex connected hardware. It’s about gathering and using the right data that will inform when and where people will receive your communication.

google now

Google Now is probably the best example of location aware communication. Using location tracking, Google can match a user’s pattern of movement to decide where work is (where the hours between 9–6 are spent) and where home is (where nights are spent). With these locations established, Google can then tailor all sorts of communication to answer questions that users can immediately benefit from. When’s the next bus arriving? When do I need to leave for my 9 a.m meeting?

Using location data (as well as search and 3rd party data) Google Now can deliver one, unified and dynamic flow of information, rather than pushing users towards static, siloed information from multiple sources.

It’s not just sophisticated meta-apps like Google Now that use location to improve their communications. Take Umbrella, a simple weather app that tries to answer the centuries’ old question — do I need to bring an umbrella? A weather app or website might be able to provide me with more detailed breakdown of precipitation and wind speed, but Umbrella just provides you with a short, succinct description of what you really want to know each morning.

The real value of these location-driven communications lies less in their marketing opportunities, and more on their ability to help users with their everyday tasks.

It’s the difference between just telling users when a bus is expected, and actually helping them to catch it.

It’s impossible to predict every context that a product or service will find itself in. But the building blocks of context — location, time, and surroundings — are often ignored, yet they’re so important to supporting the message. By using contextual research, prototyping, and testing, it’s possible to uncover these contexts, and design effective communications that are adjusted to what a customer needs to know before, during and after using a product or service.

Credit: Header image thanks to Clear Channel