Somewhere in Dante’s Hell there must be a room, a pit–perhaps even an entire level–for those who commit the atrocity of abusive context switching. You’re probably far more familiar with context switching — and its abuse — than you realize. Consider:

I ask people why they have deer heads on their walls and they say, “Because it’s such a beautiful animal…”

There you go.

Well, I think my mother’s attractive, but I have photographs of her.

— Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres is particularly adept at using context switching in her stand-up comedy. It’s a jarring moment when we find that we’ve been led down the garden path to… well, something we didn’t expect. When it’s a stand-up act, we laugh. In film, we’re surprised. But when a context switch occurs in our everyday lives, we are momentarily confused — we stumble — and then we react, sometimes at a visceral level.

Watch the face of any grade-schooler as the teacher announces a pop-quiz. First the stumble–a distinctive, blank deer-in-headlights gaze–and then,”But that’s not fair!” Of course it’s not fair. It wasn’t expected. It’s uncomfortable. And even as grown-ups we still don’t adjust well.

Acts as simple as placing a phone call can bring about a brush with context switching… when the phone is answered not by the person we intended to speak with, but instead by a machine. We stumble–momentarily at a loss for words–and then we react, and mentally kick ourselves for leaving awful, disjointed messages. Is it any wonder voice-mail was resisted so well, and for so long?

And then there’s the web. The web applications we use every day are riddled with context switches that are both unwelcome, and unwarranted. Inconsistent navigation, ill-conceived categories, irrelevant search results, increasingly intrusive ads. Each degrades the meaning of the web experience by clouding its context. And just when users need context most–when we require assurances of trust and privacy–we’re sent off to shopping cart systems that live on other servers with different URLs and a completely different look and feel. And we stumble. And when we do we click away, and abandon our virtual shopping cart for a real one.

Establishing context is important. Maintaining context is critical.

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