What is user centred design (UCD)?

3 users in different contexts with 3 different devices

User centred design is a design approach focused on ensuring that a design project (often the design of a product, service or process) has the end user's characteristics, context, devices and most importantly core requirements rooted at core of the solution from the very begining to product launch and beyond.

Therefore UCD seeks to ensure that the end result is crafted around it's core users as opposed to previous approaches where users were often either left to struggle through a poor user experience or look elsewhere for a better solution.

It's worth flagging at this point that the term 'Human centred design' is also commonly used and it's generally accepted that the two terms are interchangeable.

From my perspective, user centred design is one of the most reliable methodologies in the UX design kit bag and one that can successfully re-balance a design process where there may be a tendancy to design in an overly technology, business or aesthetics first manner.

It offers project teams the potential to avoid many of the major design mistakes that often haunt design initiatives whilst at the same time creating a collaborative ecosystem to allow the team to move beyond just the avoidance of common mistakes into the creation of a solution that will be embraced by it's intended audience with the potential to be truly world class on all levels.

The positive implications of achieving this and the resulting loyal, returning end users is increasingly being recognised by organisations big and small as a way to achieve a significant competitive advantage.

Principles

The principles layed out in ISO 13407:1999 help to set out a basis for approaching UCD and this has recently been super-ceded by ISO 9241-210:2010 external site icon which according to ISO.org:

"provides requirements and recommendations for human-centred design principles and activities throughout the life cycle of computer-based interactive systems".

More specifically, ISO puts forward six core user centred design principles:

  1. The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments
  2. Users are involved throughout design and development
  3. The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation
  4. The process is iterative
  5. The design addresses the whole user experience
  6. The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives

This is certainly a good starting point, however as we'll see each project is different and so it's important not to treat this list as defintive or exactly right for every project.

Methodologies

User centred design methodologies and techniques are reasonably well established although inevitably different practitioners will have their own preferences based on what they have been exposed to and what they have found to work best through personal experience. As already touched upon, each project is different and variables such as timelines, budgets and access to real users etc all impact on the level of user centred design focus that can be applied.

Based on my experiences working with UCD (since way back in 2006), the following maps out the core elements of a robust user centred design approach:

1) UX research, discovery and insight - during this phase as much user user insight should be gathered as possible. Personally I like to conduct contextual enquiry insight gathering activities by spending time with users (one user at a time) in their natural place of interaction and get them to explain what drives them to use a given application and then to show me (on re-design projects) how they interact with the current design by way of real tasks. This allows for interesting discussions to take place in what is often a more relaxed environment and therefore can allow for deeper insight to be collected.

An alternative or supplementary approach is to conduct the sessions remotely online via screen share. Whilst not allowing quite as much depth of insight in terms of user environment and context this approach still delivers rich insight and is ideal if some of those people you want to talk to are located further away.

Often a combined approach can work well which allows for elements of the deepest possible insights to be achieved at the same time as spending time with users who are based further afield in a quicker and more cost effective manner.

Other ways to gain insight into user types and behaviours is to talk to marketing, customers service, account management and sales team members. This will often give you a top level summarised viewpoint which can be very useful as a pre-cursor to 1-2-1 interviews.

Additional options fall further into the field of ethnographic study such as spending time in the user's environment getting a deeper understanding of their conext of use over time. In some ways this is the nervana of user research but unsurprisingly comes with a higher time investment as well as more end user commitment which will often make it impractical. However, where the opportunity for a field study does present itself it would likely be well worthwhile persuing, particularly on mobile/tablet design projects where location and context of use can often produce unexpected insight allowing for much more appropriate design approaches to be considered.

Once sufficent user insight is gathered it should then be combined with quantitative insights such as product usage stats and patterns as well as survey results. Once digested a UX designer can then put themselves firmly in the driver's seat and is now in a position to lead the design initiative forward from a position of knowledge and confidence.

2) Translating user insights into personas - one of the powerful ways that deep user insight gathering activities can help to get a design project started on a sure footing is that it provides the information and understanding to facilitate the creation of user personas which are representations of the core audience types for a given product (usually for me a website or application).

As touched on already, in addition to the personas' core requirements, other considerations such as location, devices used, and urgency of task are also important as they will help shape and design of the optimal solution.

Personally I prefer to keep personas brief and to the point and ensure that the effort is put into defining the personas' real needs and wants and how these translate into goals/tasks. Presenting these as a short and snappy scenario allows the persona to be taken forward by way a powerful mini-story that encapsulates the user's current state as it relates to the product being designed and is a quick way for other interested parties to quickly get to grips with it.

Finally, I like to plot out high level user journeys designed to map out optimal pathways to satisfy the user's goals.

3) Solution design based on user insights - from this point onwards the efforts expended during the above 2 steps are drawn upon during the crafting an optimal design solution to fit around the identified core users types. The key steps involved can vary however the key players are information architecture, product feature, functionality and content planning (often these days kept lean by way of a minimal viable product), interface and then visual design. Overall UX strategy may also be impacted or entirely driven by user insight gathering activities depending on the project.

However it's worth pointing out that robust UCD approaches are also used with great success to identify opportunities for the launch of whole new or alternative products, some of which are causing a great deal of disruption to established businesses and approaches across the world. In this case UCD is not just helping shape the design of propositions but is instrumental in identifying needs for new products entirely.

Healthy collaboration via white boarding sessions and other means is the key to surfacing lots of good ideas as well as getting buy in from those with a stake in the design process or outcome. Careful decisions in terms of who to involve and when is very important to ensure things are kept on track as is running the collaborative sessions in a way to ensure that the right outcomes are attained.

As a design moves from early conception and beyond, the user insights gathered are constantly referenced to help keep a clear design vision on course (and so protect it from the many obstacles and distractions that can crop up along the way).

Whilst the requirements of the core personas should be catered for as a priority, the users' combined way of thinking and expectations should also be considered as a whole to ensure that their overall mental model of a how the solution should be arranged, presented and works is supported. This is crutial for successful adoption.

Needless to say combining individual persona requirements with an overall mental model requires certain skills and careful thought which can most reliably come from an experienced lead level pratitioner and so it's important not to underestimate the level of expertise required to keep things moving in the right direction.

Even when the project is lead by an accomplished design practitioner, the translation of user insights into user centred solutions is inevitably prone to impact by subjective viewpoints, previous experiences, bias and some assumptions. Because of these UX design facts of life the next point that comes into play is equally important in order to deliver a successful user centred product - usability testing.

4) Usability testing (also known as user testing) and refinement - whilst step 3 above contains the UX related ingredients to create the initial design solution and move it forward, usability testing and feedback sessions need to be threaded into the process to uncover usability issues as well as to capture user reaction and general feedback.

Updates and refinements can then be made to continue to evolve the solution to a more optimal state and so it's important to try to think of usability testing as a continuous process that should ideally be maintained (to a lesser extent) once the new version of the product has been launched.

Personal perspectives on UCD

As someone who's been working in the UX field since 2005 it's pleasing to see a general ramping up of UCD efforts in recent years. Because of the raw value that it brings to the design table it was inevitable that it would rise to the top eventually and now with the customer experience (CX) and service design fields being adopted by more and more of the world's leading organsisations the focus on user centred solutions is set to go from strength to strength.

It's particularly satisfying to see it thriving after a bit of a rocky period during the early stages of mass adoption of some of the more naive, heavy handed approaches to agile development (take note if you're reading this from a part of the world where these early stages of agile are currently unfolding)where upfront research and insight phases where frowned upon in favour of a more 'just start designing now and we'll adapt as we go' mentality (which can be fatal on more complex re-design projects).

Also encouraging is how user centred design has been embraced by project teams following a 'lean' approach. Whilst undoubtadly more 'front loaded' than some would like, the continous testing/feedback mantra of lean fits naturally with UCD and so if the value of upfront insight gathering is accepted for the true value it can deliver then forward thinking lean design teams will enjoy rich rewards for their patience in working to get the balance right for what has the potential to be a 'match made in heaven'.

Other interesting user centred approaches are 'co-operative design' (a term originating in Scandinavia) and 'participatory design' (a term more common in America). These two approaches are similar in that the design team and end users work in a more equal partnership from the start of the design process all the way to launch (and also beyond I presume). Personally I can see the advantages in working so closely with end users however potential pitfalls would likely need to be monitored and managed to ensure that the process does not fall into a trap of designing what users say they want (which is generally not the same as what they actually need and would use) as well as not allowing enough considered UX thinking before blazing down a potentially unsuitable trail. However as I haven't yet worked with either approaches I need to remain open minded and reserve full judgement.

As already mentioned, and as with many design approaches, the nature, degree of usefulness of UCD methodologies will be different from project to project and so it's important not to assume a 'one size fits all' mentality or to blindly embrace the same degree of UCD focus on every project.

Final thoughts

I truly didn't expect this page to contain so much content but after working through all the important aspects I've come to realise just how much there is to consider regarding this aspect of UX design. This could be a source of concern for those new to this aspect of UX, however I urge you to embrace user centred design and see for yourself the benefits that even a rudimentry up front focus on understanding your users will bring to your design solution and then draw your own conclusions in terms of best practice as you continue to build your knowledge bit by bit, project by project.

Your findings will likely surprise you and help to shape the insight and approach of others around you therefore also benefiting a wider and wider group of end users through the creation of better digital experiences and ultimately enriching their lives.

And as a last thought I'd like to share a comment I read in a 'What is UX?' type blog post comment recently which sums things up quite nicely, "if you ain't talking to users, you ain't doing UX". Great shout.

Next steps

See 'UX terminology' navigation (located below if viewing this page on your phone or tablet) for my perspective on other UX terminology.

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Updated: 05 Dec 2015
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