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Usability/Design Tip: Context and Perspective

23 May 2003 by

I smile when I see context. Unfortunately, the majority of sites still don’t do a good job of putting their product specs in context. Sure, we understand what a medium or large t-shirt fits like (usually), but how big is a “4.2 L x 1.9 W x 0.8 H inch” cellphone? And, what does 4.8 ounces really feel like (in fact, what does one ounce feel like)? In the physical world we can pick objects up, place them in our own hands or pockets, compare them to other things we already own (a new cell phone to a phone we already own, for example), but in the online world, we really need some help.

Above you’ll find some good examples of putting products in context. On the left, the new Pentax Optio S 3 megapixel camera is so small that it fits inside an Altoids tin. Isn’t that a lot better than just saying it’s “2.0 x 3.3 x 0.8 inches” ? Upper right, the new Motorola V70 is just a bit bigger than a Doublemint package (with one stick extended a bit). And, at lower right you’ll find an example from Kicksology — putting weight in perspective (and weight is one of those things that really needs to be put in perspective). I hope more sites pick up on this trend. Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass to do this right, but it’s the little things like this that make a huge difference in the purchasing decision.

18 comments so far (Post a Comment)

23 May 2003 | Steven Garrity said...

Totally agree. Another fine example, the Sony Clie at

23 May 2003 | Paul said...

Good call.

I was purchasing part of my fiance's wedding gift last week, and almost bought this keepsake box. In this instance, though, I found the text to be more useful than the picture. It looks big in the picture because there is no useful context. Only when you look and see it's 2x2x1 do you realize, "Say, I can fit a Tic-Tac in there!"

23 May 2003 | Daniel Burka said...

Natural setting photographs can be an even more elegant way to illustrate size. For instance, I just bought a Minolta Dimage Xi and the best photo I had found (of course not on the minolta site) showed in it someone's hand.


23 May 2003 | Michael Spina said...

Good post. This is one of those things I've appreciated but never gave much thought.

Apple does this well (and appropriately) with iPod, comparing it to a CD jewel case.

23 May 2003 | scottmt said...

Seems logical that any handheld device would be advertised with the device in someone's hand .... yet this is rare, unless you can find a review.

internet shopping is held back by this - the smart shoppers will go to the physical store and spend time getting their choices straight, then go online merely to purchase. roll out the force feedback gloves !!

23 May 2003 | said...

What if the hand model has really small hands. Does you no good then, does it?

23 May 2003 | Joshua Kaufman said...

JF makes another great call.

Maybe whenever 3D printers become much cheaper we'll be able to print out a model and carry it around for ourselves.

23 May 2003 | Benjy said...

Despite seeing the iPod next to a CD case on, I was still surprised at how small it was when seeing one in person at CompUSA. It was the depth that blew me away.

On another issue relating to context of products, I find that some home-oriented sites, Crate & Barrel specifically, fail to show their products in any kind of context. Showing an empty vase against a white background just doesn't have the impact or give the context that seeing it on a table full of flowers does. They show it that way in their stores and in their print catalog, yet online they just show the lone product. Pottery Barn and Z Gallerie are a little better...

23 May 2003 | hurley#1 said...

Patagonia has always done a good job on context with their outdoor clothing: they'll say that a jacket designed for bicycling "weighs less than a Powerbar," for example. This is smart too, because they're providing context that will resonate with the people who are most likely to buy the garment. If they said that the jacket weighs less than a couple of spoons, it wouldn't have the same impact. Hmm, maybe given their prices, it would better to say "This jacket weighs less than an empty wallet." Now THAT's context.

23 May 2003 | pb said...

I work with 100s of smaller online sellers and I'd say at least 90% of them worry about the wrong things. It's these smaller outfits that should be able to produce a more effective and personal shopping environment but they just can't seem to grasp that.

23 May 2003 | JF said...

internet shopping is held back by this - the smart shoppers will go to the physical store and spend time getting their choices straight, then go online merely to purchase. roll out the force feedback gloves !!

That's me! I was thinking of switching to Nextel and getting their i95c flip phone, but I couldn't find a good product shot online that really put its size in context. I visited a store, played with the phone, saw/left that the phone was too big for what I wanted, and didn't make the purchase. I'm glad I checked it out in person otherwise I would have been dissatisfied if I purchased it online.

23 May 2003 | Darrel said...

Now, only if we could get them to put the COST in context.

Apple iPod. $500. Equal to 6 weeks worth of groceries for your family.

Of course, that probably wouldn't increase sales... ;o)

23 May 2003 | Cam said...

I hope that Rick Ridek Mastercard in the Amazon photo is fake. You can just make out the entire credit card number, along with the full name and the expiration date (also seen in the photo), it's ripe for credit card theft. I'm hoping the card is fake, but you just never know.

23 May 2003 | Hagbard Celine said...

I can only make out the first 13 of the 16 numbers. Unless I'm missing something, that leaves 999 possibilities for the credit card number, if you assume it's a real valid card.

23 May 2003 | Don Schenck said...

Darrel ... I once paid 3-1/2 hours of income for a pair of shoes.

That sounds much better than "I once $320 for a pair of Mephistos".

Cell phones are too big and too heavy. They should be the size of a credit card, about as thick as three credit cards. Same weight, too.

Weight olympic-style weight set is too heavy, too! I wish the 300 lbs. felt more like, say, 50. :-)

23 May 2003 | Chris said...

Apple iPod. $500. Equal to 6 weeks worth of groceries for your family.

No doubt. But damn I want one!!!!!!

23 May 2003 | nathan said...

$500 for 6 weeks of groceries? Pretty lowball figure doncha think?

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