October 2, 2019
Understanding User-Centered Design
Understanding User Centered Design

Is your company employing user-centered design to create products and solutions that your employees and end-users actually use? If not, you should be.

This approach is changing the way we design products and solutions – and it’s changing our outputs for the better.

It’s All About the User

Everyone wants to create products that people love to use. After all, if they aren’t usable, you aren’t exactly going to sell very much. All too often though, software companies think they have a product idea that will solve a problem, and they’ll go ahead and build it, expecting everyone will use it. And it’s not just software companies. It’s also companies that build their own software solutions in-house.

What every company should be doing is involving the end-user right from the start. User-centered design is a process that does exactly that.

Here’s a perfect definition of user-centered design from the Interactive Design Foundation:

" User-centered design (UCD) is an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process. In UCD, design teams involve users throughout the design process via a variety of research and design techniques, to create highly usable and accessible products for them.”

The foundation outlines four phases of user-centered design:

User Centered Design Graphic

The first phase is all about trying to understand the context around why a user would use a system and from there they dive into identifying the requirements for the system. From there, they design and develop the system and test it to make sure it meets the requirements.

It’s important to understand this is not a one and done process. It’s iterative and involves the end-users at every stage. By involving the end-users from the start, you can ensure that what you are building is something they will use and works the way they expect it to.

User Research Methods

There are many ways you can conduct research to understand how a user works and how to design the solution. Some are easier to do than others, but they all give you a good starting point. These research methods include contextual interviews where you observe the user as they do their work, focus groups and individual interviews, online surveys and others.

One interesting method is the System Usability Scale (SUS). SUS has become an industry standard and is used to evaluate a range of software and hardware solutions, including websites and applications. It involves getting users to complete a ten-item questionnaire, each question having five choices from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree. The ten questions are:

  1. I think that I would like to use this system frequently.
  2. I found the system unnecessarily complex.
  3. I thought the system was easy to use.
  4. I think that I would need the support of a technical person to be able to use this system.
  5. I found the various functions in this system were well integrated.
  6. I thought there was too much inconsistency in this system.
  7. I would imagine that most people would learn to use this system very quickly.
  8. I found the system very cumbersome to use.
  9. I felt very confident using the system.

I needed to learn a lot of things before I could get going with this system.

Another one that would work well for web-based applications is the First Click Test, where you watch and see what a user would click on first to complete a task. You don’t need a fully functioning website to use this test; it could be a prototype or a wireframe.

“First Click Testing allows you to evaluate the effectiveness of the linking structure of your site, including the navigation, to see if users know how to get around the site and complete their intended task.”

You can check even more types of UCD testing here.

Changing the Way We Design Solutions

“When you understand the people you’re trying to reach—and then design from their perspective—not only will you arrive at unexpected answers, but you’ll come up with ideas that they’ll embrace.” – IDEO, Field Guide to Human-centered Design.

Today, user-centered design is also called human-centered design, or even people-centered design. Don Norman, the father of user-centered design, says that we need to get to a point where humans are more important than technology and that we need to design our systems to support humans, not the other way around.

“Today, much of our technology is designed through a technology-centered approach. Basically, the technologists--and technology companies--invent and design what they can but then leave many tasks that could be done by machines to people instead, thereby forcing us to work on the technology’s terms. As a result, workers often are required to do things people are known to be bad at. And then, when they do these jobs badly, they are blamed--“Human error” is the verdict. No, this is not human error: it is inappropriate design. “

He says we need to focus on the needs of the person and design the technology to support them. And he acknowledges that we are doing a better job of doing that with many of today’s solutions. But there is still a lot of work to do.

“The goal is to change the way we consider our technology. Instead of having people do the parts of a task that machines are bad at, let’s reverse the process and have machines do the parts that people are bad at. Instead of requiring people to work on technology’s terms, require the machines to work on human terms.”

And Then There’s Design Thinking

We recently did a podcast with Claudio Guglieri on the topic of Design Thinking. Franki Simonds, Digital Design Consultant at SPARCK, defined design thinking this way:

“Design Thinking is methodology of discover/design/prototype/test/repeat on which to base your UCD principles. It is a highly collaborative, human-centered, and iterative approach to problem seeking and problem-solving, relying heavily on empathy, ideation and experimentation to drive innovative solutions that people love. It is a method of meeting people’s needs and desires whilst ensuring that the solution is both technologically feasible and strategically viable.”

Guglieri said that design is now more about how you approach problems than the craft of the work necessary. Today, anyone can create a website that looks good. Pixel perfect is no longer an in-demand skillset because everything is pixel perfect. The baseline is higher. Companies can’t differentiate on the visuals (although they are still very important); they must differentiate on how they are solving a problem or delivering an experience.

“Everything is linked to your emotional relationship to an interface and how efficient and transparent it is.”

In the end, the goal is to create a website, application, or some other product or solution that helps people do their jobs better. To do that, you must intimately understand what that person needs and build a solution that supports that need. If you don't involve the user from the beginning and throughout the entire design and development process you may wind up building something that will sit on the proverbial shelf.

Posted by David Hillis
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