It’s The Context, Stupid!

Imagine that you’re on a two-day business trip abroad. You have had a long day, and another one awaits you tomorrow. All you want is to grab a bite before you head back to the hotel. You enter a well-known restaurant, which was highly recommended by a good friend.

You have never been there before, still, the waiter immediately recognizes you and shows you to the table. As you sit down, you notice that he forgot to bring the menu. A moment later he’s back with a sizzling filet mignon accompanied by creamed baked potatoes and a glass of your favorite red wine. He nonchalantly says “bon appetit” as he walks away.

You are left utterly overwhelmed, silently murmuring to yourself: “how the @#$%& did he know that’s exactly what I was going to order…?

What’s Context Got to Do with It?

Context. That’s a big word, isn’t it? We all know what it means, yet it is so hard to define. I think that it’s hard because it involves two of the most mind boggling concepts: time and space. Being “in context” necessarily has to do with both. Rarely do we describe people as being “in context”, still we admire those who rise to the occasion of being the “right person, in the right place at the right time”, and can only feel sorry for those who eventually turn out to be the exact opposite.

The Age of Context

The “Age of Context” is a fascinating book, written by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. It was published about a year ago and discusses five technological trends that are about to change our lives over the next decade. Their research is based on interviewing over a hundred “pioneers of new technology” (no, we weren’t interviewed…) and examining new products. The book is highly recommended for those who wish to dig a bit deeper into the subject.

Traveling to China Anytime Soon?

I keep telling the story of a friend who traveled with his wife to the rural areas of China. They had the best time, despite having to deal with the same nuisance on a daily basis. The menus in most of the restaurants and inns were only in Chinese. Neither English nor photos of the served items. They practically had to guess their way out of every meal. After a while they got used to ordering several dishes until they finally got it right.

When we met back home and he told me about it I laughed. I immediately recommended some (free) apps that could translate Chinese text into English. They’re not necessarily recommended for translating books, but are perfect in telling whether a certain item on the menu is chicken, beef or pork. These apps would have been extremely useful for that friend while visiting China, however absolutely useless back at home.

In my mind, this story encapsulates our idea of context more than anything.

A Contextual Recommendation Engine

A contextual recommendation engine is supposed to provide the best content at the right time and place. Simple as that.

It should be noted that you must not let the word contextual cast its long shadow on the recommendation engine part. This engine should, first and foremost, provide great content. That’s a difficult task on its own. In order to determine which content to pitch, the engine must familiarize with the user’s preferences and areas of interest.

Moreover, there is another challenge hiding silently within those words. This kind of engine must also be predictive. Otherwise, how can it successfully determine when and where would be best to send recommendations? It must constantly analyze the user’s context (and preferences), and decide when is the right moment to recommend the relevant content it had already discovered.

This is the challenge that’s contextual recommendation engine tackles. Our vision is to provide our users with the best content at the best context. So far, our results strongly indicate that we’re on the right track.


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