In-app personalisation just doesn’t cut it anymore. Why? Users aren’t impressed with auto-filled name fields and hollow ‘happy birthday’ discounts. They can tell between low-effort personalisation and valuable contextual UX.

What’s the difference? I’ll explain.

But first, let me tell you about a flight I took last week.

After arriving at the airport, I smugly strolled past the crowds of people struggling to tell the difference between the Os and the 0s in the booking confirmation codes. Unlike them, I’d already downloaded the airline’s app and checked-in. But the immense feeling of satisfaction quickly waned as I got to the turnstiles and was prompted for my boarding pass QR code.

Upon launching the app, I was met with a splash screen thanking me by name for downloading the app. I quickly closed the full-screen onboarding guide that followed trying to help me ‘make the most’ out of the app (the same guide I skipped when I checked in). At this point, I was becoming increasingly aware of the growing queue behind me.

Ignoring the home screen filled with irrelevant personalised holiday discounts and travel tips, I quickly scanned the navigation menu and chose the My Trips icon. Here, I was greeted with my very own flight overview. But the ticking ‘countdown to departure’ only acted as a real-time reminder of just how long it was taking to get to my boarding pass. At least I was close, right? Wishful thinking.

I scrolled past all the information (that I already knew) to find a multimedia ‘journey’ of what would presumably happen if I could ever find my pass and get through the turnstile. There was a slideshow with photos of fellow flyers looking weirdly happy as they received security pat-downs. This was followed by a looping video of people settling into seats with quite frankly a fantastical amount of legroom.

But finally, after what seemed like an age, I’d arrived at my QR code boarding pass. A quick scan, an apologetic look over my shoulder to the now throng of tutting people behind me and I was on my way.

The problem here wasn’t the onboarding process or the personalised flight timeline. The problem was the context. There was none.

Self-boarding could be improved with contextual UX

All the data. None of the understanding.

The airline had all of my data but none of the understanding. They’d tried to craft this tailored journey but had forgotten to ask the key question: at this moment, what does the user actually want to do, why do they want to do it and what’s getting in the way?

Your standard CMS fields won’t tell you this. Auto-filled fields and hollow birthday messages won’t get rid of your users’ frustrations or help them to achieve their goals. Placing more importance on upselling and advertising doesn’t increase engagement, it does the opposite.

There’s a time and place to focus on increasing customer engagement. For airlines, it’s not on the morning of their clients’ flights. When personalisation doesn’t cut it, you need contextual UX.

Personalised UX vs Contextual UX

You could argue that contextual UX is a sub-category of personalised UX – or even the evolution of it. What separates the two is that contextual UX takes advantage of the available data and uses it to adapt. By being responsive to users’ motivations, contextual data help them achieve their goals much faster. In this regard, it’s now an essential part of any good app design

agency offering.

So why isn’t it commonplace?

Because it takes time and consideration to really understand the critical factors:

  • What does the user want to achieve?
  • How we can help them to do it faster?
  • What data do we need to measure?

Getting any part of this equation wrong is an easy way to alienate your users, a mistake even companies like Google get wrong from time to time. I doubt there’s a business who knows more about me than Google. So how did they slip up?

I was in London for an event last week when, towards the end of the day, I got a push notification from Google Maps telling me that there was heavier traffic than usual. Because of this, my journey home would apparently be five minutes slower as a result. This was a surprise for a few reasons…

It was my first time in London for several weeks and I’d taken the train to get there… using Google Maps to plan my route.

So even with the wealth of information available to them, Google still got the context wrong. The end result as a user was alienating, even if all it really meant was that I had to dismiss an irrelevant notification.

The lesson? Getting the context right drives provides real value that drives user engagement and retention. But getting it wrong actually feels less personal if the user experience was completely un-personalised. So how can you make sure you get it right?

Getting Contextual UX Right

There’s a reason why your phone will soon know more about you than your family and friends. To be more specific, on Android it’s 9 reasons. On iOS, it’s 15. They’re the different types of user permissions. By combining these permissions with available device info, we can build a detailed picture of our users at any given time.

  • User Type/Role: Each user type will typically have a different set of motivations and priorities. In the case of an internal enterprise app, this could involve segmenting different employees based on their varying roles or permission levels.
  • Geolocation, Weather, Date & Time
  • Behaviour or Purchase History
  • User Preferences: Often stated in the onboarding or manually in the settings, preferences help you to discover which communication channel your users prefer.
  • Device Type: Web, mobile, model and OS (iOS/macOS, Android, Windows) will all have a huge impact on the interface your users expect and the features you can take advantage of to help them achieve their goals.
  • Statuses and Sensors: In addition to location access, apps can also take advantage of similar statuses to check for signal availability, device temperature and even users’ body conditions.

The next step is combining all this data with points along the user journey. For each point along the journey, you’ll likely need to combine different sets of factors to ensure you’re providing the most relevant experience possible.

As an example, let’s fix my airport experience with contextual UX.

  • Scenario A: I arrive at the airport, open my airline app and I’m greeted with a home screen showing me personalised holiday discounts and essential travel tips. After a few taps, I can find where to check-in and load my QR code boarding pass. At the other end, I have to go through the whole process again for the second scanning station.
  • Scenario B: Two hours before my flight, I receive a push notification letting me know mobile check-in is now available. As soon as I arrive at the airport, I receive a persistent push notification with a link straight to my QR-code boarding pass. This pass is also pinned to the home screen of the airline app until I’ve boarded.

The benefit of contextual UX is immediately obvious. Displaying a custom name field on your splash screen won’t delight your users. Using geolocation data to welcome them to the airport might get their attention. But by understanding the context and pinning their boarding pass front and centre in the app (and their lock screen), you can provide real value.

Alright, I can tell that the airport analogy is wearing thin. Where else can we use contextual UX? The answer is everywhere.

Examples of Contextual UX

As long as you’re helping your users to achieve something by providing genuine value, then there’s the opportunity for contextual UX. Here’s how we’re using contextual UX for our clients to deliver the best digital products possible.


Insurers depend heavily on data to provide the best possible customer experience and challenge overcharging competitors. But when it comes to making a claim, so many people are unsure of what details they should note down or the questions to ask.

That’s why esure approached us with a challenge: help customers capture as much information as possible at the scene of an accident – one of the most stressful situations that people experience.

We worked with esure’s claims team to pilot and prototype a bespoke insurance app that uses context to streamline the claims journey. As soon as users launch the app, we capture as much information as possible instantly. We use geolocation record the exact location of the incident, combining this with available weather data to automatically recognise the road conditions.

A seamless Incident Report then lets users record the scene with their device camera, providing an audio narration to add extra details. At the same time, an image recognition algorithm uses Machine Learning (ML) to automatically capture areas of damage to the vehicle along and assign a level of severity. During the narration, built-in voice recognition records a full transcript and highlights essential info such as contact details.

By taking advantage of device features and data, we’ve made the claims process quicker and less stressful for customers. At the same time, esure’s claims adjusters are able to provide a better level of customer service and challenge any competitors trying to overcharge.


Open Banking Excellence (OBE), a leading event organisation working with global brands like Mastercard and Equinix to build a community of experts from the financial sector, approached us to transform its event experience with a bespoke event app.

Bespoke event app for Open Banking Excellence
This bespoke event app for OBE uses context to transform the event experience.

OBE wanted to provide attendees with an ultimate event experience that would keep people coming back. Its audience is time-poor and keen to focus on networking with like-minded individuals, not waiting to sign in. We knew contextual UX was the way to solve this.

As soon as an attendee arrives at the event venue, their QR code ticket is pinned to the front of their app for easy access. A sign-in process that used to take minutes now takes just seconds. Once they’re signed in, the ticket is replaced with an up-to-date list agenda for the evening.

Quickfire Contextual UX Examples

  • When you’re offline, Spotify will pin your downloaded playlists to the top of the home screen for easy access.
  • Airbnb and Uber both offer up a completely different set of features and UI elements depending on the type of user (guest vs. host and passenger vs. driver).
  • Netflix draws from individual users’ recent watching behaviour and combines it with factors like time of day to determine the most relevant movies and shows to serve up and in what order.
  • Nest thermostats start learning users’ temperature preferences from the very first day to create a customised schedule for each individual household. It then uses geolocation to recognise when users are on the way home and pre-emptively warm up the house.
  • Leading up to a flight or event, Google Pay pins tickets to users’ lock screens with a persistent push notification for quick access.
  • Gourmet Society matches geolocation with dining preferences to suggest new highly relevant restaurants for users to try out.

Where to start with contextual UX?

To deliver a genuinely valuable product for your userbase, you first have to understand them. Knowing the tasks they’re trying to carry out is no longer enough. You need to understand their motivations, their goals and their frustrations along the way. A proven way to do this is through a digital product discovery phase which helps you to prove the value of your app for your users and your business before you begin development.