Five Tenets: Contextuality

This post is part of a series on the Five Tenets of a Modern, Multi-Modal, Real-Time Communications Application.


Perhaps one of the most important, and least recognized, tenets of an RTC App is Contextuality. Today, we have many communications tools available to us: telephones, instant messaging, video chats, Skype, Google, Slack, mobile phones, tablets and web browsers. All of these provide great mechanisms for communicating, but they still all occur external to what actually caused the communication to happen in the first place. For example, if I am on the website of my power utility, and I have a question about my bill, I have to go to a completely unrelated device (a telephone), enter a generic address (the phone number), and speak to someone who has no idea who I am nor why I am calling. In the end, this does nothing but waste everyone’s time and raise the users’ frustration.

Why is Contextuality important?

My friend Geoff Hollingworth has a great saying: In the future communicating won’t be what you’re doing, it will be what you’re doing while you’re doing something else. Simply communicating isn’t enough. Instead, we must put the communication tools in the context of what drives the communication. When I initiate a conversation with someone, in almost every case, there is some context to that conversation that can be preserved. ContextualityEven if I’m just wanting to wish my mother a happy birthday, her communication device can have the context that we are family, and permit my call through. Or, her communication device can have the context that she is in a meeting (via her calendar), and prevent the call from disturbing her.

But really good, really contextual communications the value is much higher. In the power utility example above, I should be able to click a button that immediately connects me with an agent who can best address my question. The app would already see that I am logged in, so there would be no need to key in an account number. The app would know what page I am on (for example, viewing my bill) and route the call to a billing agent instead of a repairs agent. Perhaps the agent can even see my screen, so both parties could share a frame of reference when discussing the problem.

Does Contextuality happen today?

ContextualityI would argue that we are starting to see the beginnings of contextual communications. For example, Facebook Messenger and Google Hangouts have started to provide social context to communication. Though not strictly “real-time communications”, the popular Gmail plugin Rapportive shows social context from LinkedIn when receiving email. In our own work, Mojo Lingo has been involved building contextual applications for our customers, such as the one described in the ongoing series about a chat application we are building. In that case, we are able to add much more context. Users of that chat tool can simply mention a project ID, and the tool loads up a summary of that project, including its status (whether still being scoped, sold, being delivered, or complete), the monetary value, and the various individuals responsible for it. The communications is enriched with context to make the users more powerful while doing their job.

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