Ocado iPhone app and the importance of context

by Alexander Baxevanis on 8 July 2009

img_4001Those following the most recent releases in Apple’s App Store may have noticed that Ocado has now launched an iPhone & iPod Touch application. (For those reading this outside the UK, Ocado is an online groceries retailer).

From a first look, the application seems to be fairly quick to understand and easy to use, especially for those who’ve shopped with Ocado before. But what’s more interesting is that Ocado didn’t just rush to create a quick, limited functionality app. They took the time to seamlessly integrate the iPhone app and their websites, and offer a continuous experience to customers swapping between those channels.

Why support more than one channel? If you’ve ever tried to do supermarket shopping online, you may have noticed how difficult it is to sit in front of the computer and remember everything you need (unless, of course, your computer is located in your kitchen). But it should be fairly easy to walk around the kitchen with a mobile phone and note down what you need. Then there’s also these moments where you’re away from home and desperately need to add one item to your delivery. But then you’ll probably have your phone in your pocket, and you can modify your order even if you originally created it via the website.

These considerations come from studying and understanding the ‘context of use’ of an application – an essential process that we try to follow whatever we design. It often involves visiting and observing users in their work or home environment, and while this may sound difficult and time consuming, it can yield valuable insights.

In the mobile industry, one of the most famous stories about understanding context of use is that of the creation of the Palm Pilot. According to an article in WIRED magazine:

People thought Jeff Hawkins [founder of Palm] was crazy when they saw him taking notes, checking appointments, and synchronizing a small block of wood with his PC, pretending all the while that the block was a handheld computer

What Hawkins really understood was that the importance of context, and that’s why he tried to carry that fake “handheld computer” with him and try to understand how he’d use it in a variety of everyday contexts.

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