Week 4: Aspects of Context

Learning Outcomes


  • Users come in all shapes and sizes; systems need to accommodate that
  • Forcing people to use systems in ways that stress their bodies causes harm
  • The context of use may impair different modalities in different ways
  • Socioeconomic status and technological constraints are important part of usage context
  • The role of community or government funded initiatives in bridging the digital divide


  • Anatomy versus physiology
  • Tactile versus kinaesthetic versus haptic perception
  • Posture
  • Load bearing
  • Digital Divide
  • Literacy
  • Socioeconomic status


  • How to adjust your workstation so that it is ergonomic
  • Given a user group, determine to what extent they may be affected by the digital divide

Preparing for the Lecture

The context of the individual

Posture is the way in which you hold or position your whole body (head, neck, arms, legs, torso, …).  If you use or hold your body in ways for which it was not intended too often, you will get hurt. Some of the most common issues are repetitive strain injury and back pain. If you want to see how pervasive bad posture is, check out this list of potentially damaging postures by the UK National Health Service (NHS) and see how often you adopt them in your own daily life.

In posture, anatomy and physiology work together. Anatomy is about the structure of your body – your skeleton, the muscles and tendons, and so on. Physiology is about the function of your body. For example, your abdominal muscles (structure) stabilise your torso (function). If those muscles are weak, you may need additional help to stay upright.

If you want to apply ergonomics to your own daily life, check out these posters that show you not only how to adjust your work station, but also how to move and stretch to counteract the harmful effects of staying in one position for too long. An alternative to sitting and standing desks are treadmill desks. Note the discussion of multitasking in this article.

The context of individual skills

Literacy, in the context of technology and IT systems, is often used as a catch-all phrase for the answer to the question “How well can a person use and deal with X?” To see an example for basic computer literacy, I recommend reading

Poynton, T. A. (2005). Computer literacy across the lifespan: a review with implications for educators. Computers in Human Behavior, 21(6), 861–872. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2004.03.004

The catch-all concept of literacy quickly becomes problematic when you want to define it more closely and measure it. What are the relevant skills? What does it mean to be literate? Even for the ability to read and write, from which the original term literacy derives, the definition is not clear. To illustrate the complexities involved, here are some definition of grade reading levels used in the US: https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/achieveall.aspx

The social context

Describing a person’s social context is so complicated that there is an entire discipline (sociology) which is partially devoted to this question. If you want to start simple, and if you want a variable that is often used in both the research literature and in policy and government literature, look at the concept of socioeconomic status (SES).

There are no very clear definitions of the term, but it roughly describes a person’s standing in society. An example of somebody with very high socioeconomic status is Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Homeless people rank near the bottom. A person’s status can change – Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, advanced from a relatively low status as a refugee to a very high status as a billionaire.

Bringing it all together: The Digital Divide

The digital divide is, roughly speaking, the distinction between those who have technology and skills and those who don’t. Many factors determine the side of the divide that a person finds themselves on – this is where all aspects of context come together. For example, a person with no hands or blind people may be severely limited in how they can use computers. A person who doesn’t know how to protect themselves online might be scared to go online in the first place. And a person who doesn’t earn enough to buy a computer or doesn’t have a home where they can keep a valuable device can’t use it to apply for badly needed services.

A useful introduction to the digital divide is provided by Wikipedia. Should you want to cite the concept in your own work, however, look for more specific papers and reports that are relevant to the context you are looking at.

Core Papers

The relevant textbook chapter is Chapter 3.

If you are a designer, and would like to see how an ergonomic evaluation is performed, here are two recent examples:

Cho, J., Freivalds, A., & Rovniak, L. S. (2017). Utilizing anthropometric data to improve the usability of desk bikes, and influence of desk bikes on reading and typing performance. Applied Ergonomics, 60, 128–135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2016.11.003

This paper shows how the effects of a difference in desk type are assessed methodologically by looking at the effect it has on typical activities such as reading and typing.

Chang, J., Jung, K., Lee, W., & You, H. (2017). Development of a usability evaluation method using natural product-use motion. Applied Ergonomics, 60, 171–182. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2016.11.015

This paper shows you how you can check whether the movements and range of motion required by a product are consistent with a person’s natural (or even optimal) range of motion.

Those of you who have taken the HCI course may want to follow up on the concept of the digital divide.

Michael Gurstein discusses the digital divide in a political and civic context.
Gurstein, M. (2003). Effective use: A community informatics strategy beyond the Digital Divide. First Monday, 8(12). doi:10.5210/fm.v8i12.1107

If you want well-researched data on the extent and form of the Digital Divide, I can recommend  reports by Pew Research (US) and Ofcom (UK). The recent report on Libraries by Pew Research emphasises how important libraries are in ensuring everybody has digital skills.