Using an example of Hinton going to the airport, this chapter introduces the different elements of context. Hinton's airport story includes the physical, semantic, and digital contexts he encounters, setting the stage for further analysis in the rest of the book.

Birds in Trees, Words in Books Edit

Hinton introduces context, by describing it as "what one thing means in relation to something else"[1]. However, different situations, technologies, and perspectives complicate that definition. Hinton uses examples of cross-channels such as mobile phones, broadcasts, and desktops. These cross-channels act as a medium for information. The information means something different depending on what cross-channel, or, context, it's being presented in. Perspective, location and the social situation of the user also affect context. A person acts differently in work than around their family, because their location and social situation necessitates a different behavior. When presented with with new, popular music, a teenager and a senior citizen would react differently due to their different perspectives. This difference in perspectives is their context, and changes how they feel about the music.

Scenario: Andrew Goes to the AirportEdit

In this section, Hinton has context-related difficulties when traveling through an unfamiliar airport. Hinton upgraded to an "Economy Comfort" seat and didn't know which TSA lane that entitled him to go through. When he tried to get help from an employee, Hinton found that the lack of reception inside the airport and the airport's WiFi paywall prevented him from bringing up his boarding pass on his phone. Hinton tried to use Apple's Passbook app to get around this difficulty of getting his boarding pass. However, he was unfamiliar with the app, and he had trouble dismissing notifications from the app on his lock screen. Although Hinton shared his trip itinerary through Google Calendar, his colleagues weren't able to access it. Hinton had to manually send his colleagues the itinerary while just managing to make his flight on time.

Breaking it DownEdit

Hinton found himself in a mess of different digital, semantic and physical structures. Within these structures, Hinton was an agent trying to understand his environment well enough to take action in it. In familiar situations, agents don't have to think about what they are in relation to their environment. However, Hinton had to understand his environment well enough to understand what actions he was allowed to take.

Both the struggles with Hinton's Passbook app and Google Calendar highlight how Hinton "struggled to accurately perceive meaningful relationships between elements in [his] environment"[2]. Hinton didn't understand that the notification from the Passbook app contained information about his flight. The fact that it stayed on his lock screen was a feature, not a bug. Hinton was unaware of how the app changed the relationship between the phone's lock screen and notifications. Hid difficulty in sending his calendar to others was due to a misunderstanding in how his Google Calendar relates to other users. Hinton had difficulty understanding that his calendar had different privacy settings in a digital context and was not automatically shared with others.


Hinton starts by giving us the tools for understand context--agents, action, environments, and understanding. He explains, “We are agents trying to take action in our environments, and we have to understand those environments well enough to take the appropriate actions”[3]. In the unfamiliar airport, Hinton struggled to understand his environment well enough to take the appropriate actions. Although he had traveled before, his physical, semantic and digital contexts was different. Hinton struggled to understand the rules and structures of his new physical place, including different TSA lanes, no cell phone reception and the WiFi paywall. He also had to understand the "Economy Comfort" label that now applied to his semantic context. Hinton also struggled to effectively use his cell phone, amid sharing his Google Calendar and the unfamiliar Passbook app confusing his digital context.

Hinton also notes how the confusing environment and labels were all created by well-meaning humans. Taken apart, the many TSA lanes, confusing Google Calendar settings, and Passbook app notifications are more annoying than inconvenient. However, together they create a messy and complex system that is hard to navigate. Had these structures been subject to an iterative design process they may have developed to be easier to use. "An important characteristic of ecological systems is that they are inherently dynamic; though their structures and contents can be specified at a given moment, in real time they are constantly changing, limited only by parameters that are themselves subject to change over longer spans of time"[4] explains Marilyn Cooper in her theory on writing ecology. According to this ecological view, the confusion Hinton acquired at the airport was due to its static nature. There was never an iterative look at the difficulty of accessing one's boarding pass digitally in that physical airport compared to the increased usage of boarding passes in digital contexts. These original parameters and architecture set by the Passbook app continue to limit it, creating confusion among users who aren't used to how it acts. Every structure Hinton encountered could have benefited from being dynamic and reactive to other changes in the structures that make up the context it is a part of.


  1. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 3
  2. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 8
  3. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 7
  4. Cooper, Marilyn M.. “The Ecology of Writing”. College English 48.4 (1986): 364–375. Web...