When we design a new product, it’s always essential to understand who and how people will use it. Without this understanding, there is almost no chance of creating a product people will love. “People ignore design that ignores people” is a famous quote by Frank Chimero. And this quote perfectly summarizes the importance of user-centered design. User-centered design is about gaining a deep understanding of who will be using the product.

The companies that apply UCD practices in their design process focus on the user and create products that are aligned with user expectations. The fundamental principle of user-centered design is that if you gather data from users and incorporate your findings into product design, you are more likely to create products that people will like.

In this article, we will discuss what user-centered design is, what the key principles of UCD are, and how to introduce them in the product design process.

What is User-Centered Design?

User-centered design (UCD) is a collection of processes that focus on putting users at the center of product design and development. When a product team develops digital products, it takes into account the user’s requirements, objectives, and feedback. Satisfying user’s needs and wants becomes a priority, and every design decision is evaluated in the context of whether it delivers value to the users. User-centered design gives you a way of adding an emotional impact into your products.

User-Centered Design Principles

User-centered design is based on a few fundamental principles that can be applied for the product design process:

  • Users are involved in the design process from the very beginning. Critical design decisions are evaluated based on how they work for end-users.
  • Importance of requirement clarification. The product team always tries to align business requirements with user’s needs.
  • Introducing user feedback loop in the product life cycle. The product team collects and analyzes feedback from users regularly. This information helps the team to make more user-focused decisions.
  • Iterative design process. The product team constantly works on improving user experience; it introduces changes gradually as it gains more understanding about their target audience.

User-Centered Design and Design Process

Many product teams rely on the five-stage design process proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school). That process includes the following stages:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Idate
  • Prototype
  • Test

User-centered design can be applied for all stages of this process. Interaction Design Foundation explains how requirement clarification can benefit the design process and what process the team should follow to formulate the requirements better. That process looks like this:

  • Understand the context of its use
  • Specify user requirements
  • Design a solution
  • Evaluate against requirements

Let’s review techniques that can help the product team to design a better user experience:

Research

The job of UX designers is to envision what their users should experience; research helps to gain this understanding. The goal during this stage is to understand who we design for.

Creating personas

Personas are archetypes of real users. It is a representation of a particular group of people with similar behavior, needs, goals, skills, attitudes, etc. Personas make it possible to bring your users to life and help understand their problems better. This understanding allows designers to make the right decisions about product features, navigation, interactions, visual design, and much more.

To create a proper persona, you need to have a clear understanding of your target audience—people who will use your product. It is critical because if you fail to understand your target audience, chances are you will end up creating a wrong solution for them.

example of a user persona

Image by xtensio

Specify the context of use and scenarios of interactions

When a product team has a clear answer to the question, “Who uses our product?” the next question arises — “How they will use it?” The main objective is to establish why these users would be interested in your product and how they want to use it. It’s always important to understand that people use products to achieve particular goals. They see your product as a solution to the problem they have. Thus, when you work on creating a context of use, always start with a problem that a user faces. By clearly formulating a problem, you will have more chances to create a better use case for your product.

When it comes to writing the actual scenario of interaction, it’s vital to highlight a few things:

  • User environment. Where the interaction takes place. Is it a quiet office space or a loud street?
  • Medium. What device a user is using. Is it a desktop computer with a large screen or a mobile phone with a tiny screen?
  • Mood. What is the emotional state of a person? How the user feels at the different stages of the user journey.

2. Concept Ideation

Once you have a deeper understanding of your target audience and the problem you’re solving, it’s time to create an actual solution. 

User journey mapping

To create a proper solution for the problem, it’s essential to look at the user interactions with a product or service holistically. Most of the time we want our product/feature fit in the existing ecosystem/product that users use. That’s why it’s vital to understand what typical interactions will look like.

After you have this understanding, you can start to visualize the journey. It’s possible to use various techniques for this. I recommend using a user journey map and storyboarding. A user journey map is an excellent tool for UX designers because it visualizes how a user interacts with a product and allows designers to see a product from a user’s point of view

a user journey map template
Image by NNGroup

Storyboarding uses a story of interaction in its foundation, and this makes the interaction more realistic. Also, storyboarding allows you to convey the emotional state of a person during the different parts of the journey.

storyboard used for user interaction with a voice based device
Storyboard for user interaction with a voice-based device. Image by BBC.

Creating information architecture

Information architecture is the art and science of organizing information in products. And it’s essential to work on IA before you move to the design state because it will influence the way you design particular screens/pages.

When working on IA, you can use a tree testing technique. Tree testing is a method of examination of your information architecture. In essence, this technique is about an examination of the structure of your product. You set a number of questions, and participants will try to think of the answers in the context of the navigation structure. 

3. Validation

Validation is not just a step of the process, it’s a constant activity that happens along the way while you work on a solution. It’s recommended to evaluate design decisions through usability testing with actual users.

Observe how users interact with your product

Observation is a very powerful technique for collecting qualitative insights about your users. When you observe how real users interact with your product, you gain a lot of information on what works well for them. There are two techniques for validation design decisions – usability testing and contextual inquiries.

Usability testing will help you understand what problems users face when they interact with your design. Contextual inquiry is a user research technique that involves observing and interviewing people while they perform tasks in context. This technique is a mix of qualitative research and user interviews. The person who conducts a contextual inquiry (a researcher) observes how participants perform their tasks and has them talk about what they are doing while they are interacting with a product.

What’s important to remember about UCD

UCD is about turning empathy concepts into specific product requirements

Empathy-based concepts such as user’s thoughts, feelings, frustrations take a central stage in user-centered design. Product designers should be able to turn empathy-based concepts into systematic requirements such as the user’s goals and interaction habits—something that a whole team can use to build a product.

No guessing, no personal opinions

Non-validated personal opinions about design (also known as personal bias) are something that prevents designers from creating good design. In UCD, every design decision should be implemented based on the information you have about your users and validated during the process testing.

Involving all team members in product design

UCD works much better when a multidisciplinary team is taking part in the design process. When a team consists of people with different backgrounds and disciplines, it can produce more creative design decisions.

UCD and business

The environment where a team creates a solution has a tremendous impact on the outcome. If the environment prioritizes business goals over those of their users, this rarely ends up in creating truly user-centered products. Thus, UCD requires changing the focus—from business goals to user needs. In reality, product management should always try to achieve a balance between business and users’ goals.

Conclusion

Every product development is a journey. The product team makes a lot of decisions along the way, and the outcome is often defined by those decisions. If we prioritize user needs and wants, and truly strive to create a user-focused design, our journey will end up with a product that users will love.