Five-Minute Mysteries: Context and Behavior

Context and behavior are barely separable. Especially in five-minute mysteries.

You know the five-minute mystery that goes like this?

A man walks into a bar and orders a drink. Instead of giving the man a drink, the bartender points a gun at him. The man says “thank you” and leaves the bar.

The point of the five-minute mystery is to figure out the context under which this odd situation might have happened. Why on earth would anyone say “thank you” to a bartender who points a gun at them? And if having a gun pointed at him is what the man wanted, why didn’t he ask for it straightaway?

This is a rather typical five-minute mystery and like most it really gets people interested. They love the challenge of figuring out what unique circumstances could have led to this odd situation. Most of the time they blatantly break the five-minute rule (or twenty question rule, whichever you prefer) and continue to ask questions until they proudly exclaim “Aha! I’ve got it”!

Or they’re more like me and they plead to hear the answer.

An interesting thing about users navigating web sites is that, like the characters in the five-minute mystery, everything they do makes perfect sense to them. Even if they do odd things, users on the web have some explanation of why it was necessary to do what they did. Most of the time, upon hearing the reason why a user did such-and-such, we must reluctantly admit that there exists a method to their madness, however irrational it may be.

Consider the case of the first-time computer buyer who calls the support center complaining that their desktop doesn’t work. No matter what they do, they can’t play music or send email. The support person goes through their problem-analysis protocol, asking the caller various questions about what they did. Eventually the support person figures out that the screen is actually blank, the computer is off, and the caller never actually plugged it in to begin with.

Though thinking a desktop computer can work without plugging it in is pretty irrational for most of us, it makes perfect sense to the caller. After all, they never had to plug in the computer when they tried it out at the store.

Too often as designers we focus on what users SHOULD rationally do, not necessarily WHY people do what they shouldn’t. This creeps into design in the form of the best-case scenario. We design with a clear understanding of the right way to do things. For instance, we might create an information architecture using very common words that make sense to our colleagues and us. Rational users (in our best-case scenario) should have no problem navigating to the content they want.

Of course, users aren’t always rational, and their behavior rarely fits the best-case scenario. We must remember, I think, that their behavior is directly based on their own experience. And since experience is so different from person to person, even from one family member to another, it is impossible to hope that two people’s behavior will be the same.

Breaking the similarity between people even more, however, is the idea of context. Not only are our experiences different, but current situations that we are asked to handle are almost always different, too.

One reason why five-minute mysteries can be so difficult is that they combine both context and behavior. It is too easy for listeners to assume that the behavior of the characters is normal. But often it is not, as in this case. Not many people in their right mind would say “thank you” to somebody who pointed a gun at them, not matter what the circumstance!

Design is difficult for the same reason; we’re dealing with both context and behavior, and we often assume that they are more similar than they really are. However, even if two people come to a web site for similar reasons (like reading news headlines), they may be in completely different contexts and may exhibit completely different behaviors. User testing them won’t be beneficial unless we know exactly what context they’re in. One person may want to read the headlines to check up on the latest hurricane, and another might be worried about a family member in Iraq.

That is not to say that we can design for each context and each behavior. But we must be conscious of the possibility, at least, of recognizing primary contexts and optimizing for certain behaviors. A recent example of this is when Home Depot decided to design for the context of fear: plastering their home page with a huge image of the cloud spiral of Hurricane Ivan(via in the hopes that people would choose their store to purchase materials in preparation of the oncoming wrath.

Home Depot assumed that people would come to their site in a certain context and they were banking on those people to then behave accordingly. It doesn’t feel all that ethical to me, but it’s no mystery what they’re doing.

Published: September 23rd, 2004