User-Centered Design: What It is and How to Do It
User-centered design has led to many breakthroughs in the world of design.
It has boosted the international standards of products and interfaces, expanded creative opportunities in design, and assisted the evolution of technology in recent times.
User-centered design helps both consumers and companies in the design of products by creating solutions that accommodate both. By compiling diverse design teams of all sorts of field experts, companies can develop solutions to problems potential users are experiencing without even being fully aware of it or unable to envision solutions to their problems and limitations.
Usability is at the forefront of this design process. Each step is geared towards maximizing the design team’s ability to create a satisfying and efficient experience. In this article, we'll learn more about the key principles of UCD, why it's important, and some tips for implementing a design that targets your primary users.
What is UCD?
It is an iterative design process that relies heavily on feedback and data about the user's experience to create solutions that work for both potential consumers and the business. It’s common in the generative methods of digital products and especially crucial in UX/UI design.
For example, a design team that needs to create a user-friendly website interface will apply the UCD design guidelines to generate and refine a solution based on the user's point of view, needs, and desires.
A prototype will go through quality testing and be worked on in collaboration with users through feedback and deep analysis of their experience and behaviors, which will influence decisions about product features.
User-centered design efforts are sometimes confused with human-centered design. While human-centered design involves putting humans at the center of the process of product design to accommodate them, human-centered design is more geared towards solving social problems and helping society and communities. On the other hand, user-centered design is more focused on creating usability solutions.
Why is UCD Important?
User experience is valuable in product design (particularly in digital products like app design), web and interface design, and marketing. Designer Frank Chimero was on point when he said, "People ignore design that ignores people."
Consumers want life to be made simple for them. A website, app, or product exists to satisfy a consumer, so its success depends on their experience.
The benefits of a user-centered design approach for a company include:
- Loyal users that keep returning for business
- Increased sales
- Developing refined, efficient, and highly accessible products
- Understanding problems in-depth to create excellent solutions
- Collaboration between customers and teams
- Avoiding common mistakes
- Improving competitiveness
- Helping them understand their market
It benefits consumers by:
- Simplifying their lives
- Satisfying their desires
- Making them feel heard and understood by companies
- Making them feel valuable in the development of products they use
- Providing solutions to problems they didn't know they had or couldn't envision solutions to
The UCD Process
The Interaction Design Foundation highlights the necessity for considering the entire user experience from start to finish and defines the user-centered design method in 4 steps:
1. Understand the context of use - This part of the design phase is crucial. Contextual Inquiry involves observing actual users in their context and is what leads to the understanding of users. We gain context through in-depth observation and interviewing users to understand their behavior and needs. This part of the process is usually performed by professionals in the behavioral sciences who carry out expert interviews and depend on various ethnography methods.
2. Specify user requirements - Once the user is better understood, design teams can compile a list of user requirements and rough concepts to guide how they design the finished product. The product will be designed to accommodate the user's needs.
3. Design a solution - The emphasis is on "solution" here. The purpose of designing something is to offer a solution to a problem, need, or desire. Design ideas must solve a problem based on what was uncovered during the research phase.
4. Evaluate against requirement - Once there is a prototype of the design, this must go through a process of evaluation where the product is analyzed on how well it satisfies the initial requirements discovered. Wherever there are gaps, the product will go through a process of iteration where the design will be revisited to fill those gaps until there is a complete design that meets all user requirements. Evaluating designs through usability testing gives a clear understanding of the discrepancy between the product and the user requirements, which drives the process forward.
A design team needs to have multidisciplinary input from engineers to psychologists, marketers, and creatives to achieve this holistic approach. A finished design cannot be achieved without a reliable team and a stringent design process guiding its development.
Tips for Maximizing Usability
The user-centered design process exists to maximize usability and satisfy consumers. The basic four-step process mentioned above is a foundation. There is so much that happens within each of those steps, so we thought we'd flesh it out a little more with some tips for maximizing usability.
1. Empathizing and Understanding
During the contextual inquiry phase, user interviews are crucial because they help everybody on the design team to get into the perspective of the user and gain an explicit understanding of their experience. Contextual inquiry provides insights into users’ overall perception, how they feel about a product to frustrations, limitations, and blocks they experience.
Empathy means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is the first step in design thinking because getting into the nitty-gritty of users' experience on every level helps design teams get a first-hand perspective and know exactly which problems to solve.
Empathy is one of the methods of development in design that can't be missed!
Empathic design is slightly different. It is a user-centered design approach explicitly focused on how users feel about a product. This is also important to include in a user-centric development process. How one feels about a product is vital in a consumer experience.
A product might offer good solutions and be highly efficient, but perhaps it lacks emotional connection and relationship-building with consumers. Users need to feel inspired, cared for, and resonant with something for it to achieve success. This is where visual design can play an important role.
An interface and branding that is beautiful and inspiring goes a long way and is a doorway into connecting with the right users by appealing to them through their visual tastes and building an emotional relationship with a product.
Some tips for bringing empathy and understanding into the design process include:
- Asking questions - "What-how-why" or the "5 Whys" take us deeper into observing and understanding others' perspective
- Story sharing and capturing - Helps to empathize with all the complexities that influence a single user's experience
- Bodystorming - A creative development process whereby people on a design team will Imagine themselves using the product from a real-life standpoint, which helps them to get into the firsthand experience of a potential user. A user persona would also come in handy with this technique.
- User personas - Help designers to empathize by creating archetypal users who represent a larger group of users. Embodying a user persona is an excellent method for creating empathy in the design process and is commonly used in design for deeper understanding.
Letting empathy guide the design process is key in cultivating customer loyalty.
2. Staying Clear on "The Why”
Design is a highly intentional process. It needs to be mapped out, follow steps, and, most importantly, guided by an overall vision that is aligned with business goals.
Designers must know why they are creating something to be able to navigate the roadblocks that are bound to arise during the implementation phase. Everybody needs to be clear on why the design is beneficial to both users and the business. The “why’ is the incentive that drives development.
There are plenty of goal-setting methods that help projects stay on track and connected the "why," aka the "reason for being," aka "the vision." It takes good project management and excellent leadership- a vital part of design and business success.
3. Aligning Business Requirements With User Needs
At the end of the day, the business also has requirements that must be met. Focusing only on the users would present limitations. Once their needs are understood, they need to be aligned with the goals and outcomes of the business that consider revenue, stakeholders, and the scope of the design.
Aligning user needs with the success of the business comes down to goals and a clear roadmap. The business requirements and goals need to be very clearly stipulated from the get-go, with room for flexibility to accommodate meeting unforeseen user needs while still staying on track with the business requirements. This is where the business model will help to guide the design process.
Keeping business requirements satisfied is setting the project up for success from an internal standpoint by ensuring you have all the resources you need, making and following through on commitments, staying connected to the overall vision, and having efficient project management and leadership.
4. Honing the User Feedback Loop
Feedback is a fundamental design principle and essential in any design process.
User feedback is the act of responding to input from users. The user feedback loop is critical in the user-centered design process because it shows the design team where to improve and recalibrate.
It is maintained throughout the existence of the product or system, so therefore the user feedback loop, or customer feedback loop, will be relied on throughout the existence of the product or system.
It's vital that there is an efficient communication channel between users and design teams that is always open. Feedback should constantly be encouraged and even rewarded. Marketing and PR teams will come up with solutions as to how to drive and encourage feedback. Not all feedback will be a complaint.
It can take the form of testimonials and positive reviews that will emphasize what is working well about the product or system, so this area can be left as is or improved even more for deeper satisfaction.
Setting yourself up for success with an excellent feedback loop that is nurtured and responded to with care, diplomacy, and curiosity from the internal team is vital for user satisfaction and a valuable source of information for the business to grow and improve.
The user feedback loop benefits business goals because it can reveal opportunities for additional revenue, financial savings, and advanced categories and features as well.
5. Always Be Iterating
The design process is about trying things again, and again, and again until they work.
As many of you will know, the design process is an iterative process. This is an ongoing process throughout development and maintenance where the product or system is constantly being improved. Living in such fast-paced times means plenty of work for design teams who have to stay on top of the latest developments and technologies.
Iteration is a crucial part of any design process and long-term customer satisfaction. During the process, a prototype will be tested, tweaked, and tested again in a repetitive cycle until a solution is reached.
During iteration, the prototype will go through user testing and usability testing. Users will test the design, be observed, and give feedback.
6. Ease is Everything
The key to excellent usability in design is making everything as simple and easy as possible. A friendly experience is one that's enjoyable, easy, and satisfying. Creating simplicity is an art. It's a process of elimination. It requires deep understanding. User-centered design practices generate ease by:
- Reducing the effort for the user
- Using plain, simple language (this doesn't mean it can't be creative)
- Putting the user in the driving seat and giving them power
- Simplifying navigation
- Making information utterly clear and finding the balance between not patronizing the user but also not being unnecessarily complicated and over-articulate.
Examples of Great UCD
User-centered design examples are everywhere, particularly in most of the well-known digital products and software tools we use today. We’ve listed a few examples of brands that have built success by putting the user experience at the center of everything they do while aligning with business requirements.
Apple knows how to deliver a fantastic user experience, that's for sure. Their success comes down to usability. By emphasizing design, everything created across the brand has simplicity and beauty at heart, which both attracts users, satisfies them, and makes life easy for them.
The Apple website makes information highly accessible to users. It provides detailed specifications about products in easy-to-understand language on an intuitive, well-organized interface.
This email and content platform is one of the most user-friendly out there. It not only makes things simple but adds a level of enjoyment that appeals to users. Mailchimp values personalization and building relationships with consumers. The Mailchimp mascot is an excellent example of a usability hack that builds connections with users through a persona.
Another excellent example of a user-friendly intuitive design solution, the online vacation rental marketplace Airbnb soared to success by taking a brilliant idea to the next level by focusing on meeting every need of potential consumers into account and satisfying them.
The app is personalized, simple-to-navigate, and makes finding and booking accommodation effortless, especially with features like being able to cancel and receive money back. They also use visual design well as a means to inspire their users.
This productivity app helped users improve their habits and ultimately their lives by making productivity fun.
They provided a solution to the mundane, making difficult-to-complete tasks easier by transforming these into a game.
Not only did they create something to help people achieve health and happiness, but they excavated the common blocks that keep people from completing the tasks that lead to their own happiness and took a creative approach to offer a totally different, more exciting route to completing tasks.
Interactive systems such as gamification are a great way to give users the power, whereby your product is a tool that enhances their life.
Do you have a better understanding of user-centered design?
The concept itself is simple. The process, however, is work, as you should be able to tell by now. It takes interdisciplinary teams of experts, deep analysis, and a whole lot of iteration. If we had to narrow it down to just three takeaways, they’d be:
- Understanding users through deep research and empathy is at the core of design solutions
- Simplicity, ease, and enjoyability is the goal
- It takes many iterations to achieve success
If you'd like to experiment with your own ideas for user-centered-design, try Vectornator. It's a free vector design platform that will help you shape and iterate all of your innovative design ideas.