Context Setting

In any innovation project, there is a need to set the starting point so you know where you’ve come from in understanding where you are and where you are going to.

We’ve often referred to this as setting a baseline. Another way to frame this is about setting the stage for what’s to come — your context. One of the tools to help you do this is to prepare a Living History document — a master document that tracks your activities, decisions, and observations along the journey. This is part of a larger effort to evaluate and tell the story of your innovation.

However, context-setting is more than that. Starting a business in the middle of an economic crisis or a pandemic is not the same as doing it in the middle of a boom. Measuring the early success of an ice cream shop that opens in Canada in January is different than one that opens up during the summer months. The same product and service, a very different context.

Starting Out

Where to begin?

The first thing we suggest you do is try to view your current situation and context through the eyes of a stranger. Imagine you are coming upon a place or situation for the first time. What are you noticing?

That beginner’s mind is something that we use in Design Thinking all the time to help us ask better questions. It helps us to be mindful of our environment and ourselves and allows us to ground whatever actions we take, strategies we create, and directions we follow in the present reality — not just possibility. As innovators, we often are primed to see what could be at the expense of what is.

We don’t want to lose that, just to put it aside at the beginning.

This involves asking questions like:

  • What is this [ ] for?
  • Why is this [ ] done the way it is?
  • What do these [people, things, tools] do?
  • What is important to the people around me in this situation?

Simple questions like this can lead to profound insights about something you thought you knew. Add in some observations — without judgement — by simply describing the things you see in front of you and you’re ready to start organizing and sensemaking.


We like to use the STEEP-V framework to help you organize some of what you see. STEEP-V is a means to record and organize information based on a variety of different factors present in a context. These are:

  • Social
  • Technological
  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Political
  • Values

By organizing and inquiring about your context using these categories we start to see what kind of situation we are in and what are the areas of focus of our clients and community. It helps us to understand why people might be more inclined to act, think, strive in particular ways and how what we are doing with our innovation can meet people where they are at to bring it together.

By combining some inquiry-based questions and STEEP-V you will draw a picture of the current context that you can use to populate your Living History document and use as a point of comparison down the road.

By understanding the context in which you are launching your innovation you are reminding yourself of the constraints, enablers, and situations you’ve designed your product or service for. Later — months or years later — you might find that things have changed. With this baseline, you can then do this context-setting again to see whether you are still designing for it — or for the past.

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