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Understanding User-Centered Design Process and How to Do It Right

Alekh Verma | February 7, 2023
user centered design

No matter the kind of product you’re creating, you need to be cognizant of the users you’re creating it for. Try to think about your favorite product, it could be software, your favorite mobile application, or the website you so frequently visit. The reason that piece of product is your favorite and you keep going back to using it is that the product was created keeping your specific problems in mind. The company that has created that product has made an additional effort to understand their user.

What is User-Centric Design?

User-centered design (USD), in simple terms, is a design process that relies heavily on the product user. Any user-centered design aims to create something that the user needs and at the same time keep users' feelings in mind. Moreover, USD also focused on iteration- which dictates that an idea must be tested with microscopic precision in order to get satisfying results.

Now you must think, aren’t all approaches built around the benefit of the user, and aren’t all designers already aiming for something keeping their users in mind? The answer is obviously, yes. Most designers start their design process keeping in mind the user they’re creating it for. However, over time designers start to believe that they understand the audience, and this is where they falter. Designers, while believing they know their audience, forget to take in the factor that users are changing with the changing technology and their needs might change too. This is where a user-centered design process gets the focus back on the audience by not just prioritizing them but also keeping their needs, feelings, and goals looped in with every step of the design process.

User-centered design is crucial for this reason. It refocuses our attention on the user by framing entire projects around their requirements, objectives, and feelings rather than just giving them a priority. UCD does this by using a range of ideation and exploratory research techniques to develop a thorough understanding of the user, then using this understanding as the basis for developing a product.

It's important to note that user-centered design focuses on your users, the people you picture using your particular product. UCD takes into account a target audience's traits and what makes them special because these factors influence what they'll want to do with your product and how they'll utilize it.

For instance, if you’re a business that’s building a geolocation app then you need to keep it different for let’s say someone who is traveling in town as compared to someone who’s mountain biking. Both these users are quite different, and although the product you’re offering is the same (which is a map app), the way you package this product for both audiences is different.

Benefits of User-Centered Design

We'll see that UCD is a labor-intensive procedure. At first glance, it could appear that the resources required to finish a cycle are not worthwhile. But UCD has been shown to result in long-term cost savings for two reasons.

First, UCD gives companies the ability to develop better products that bring in more money. UCD done right results in products that are in line with what users want and need. These products are more likely to be purchased by users, increasing your sales. Customers will also be more satisfied with the goods, develop a stronger relationship with your business, pass the product along to others, and make more purchases in the future.

Second, by identifying problems early and frequently, UCD reduces development costs. By integrating users, you typically learn what works and what doesn't very fast, reducing the number of adjustments you'll need to make later. Imagine missing a crucial problem after launch; fixing it would be much more expensive than if it were discovered early in the design process.

Principles of User-Centered Design

When it comes to a design process there are a lot of things that companies should keep in mind, however, we’ve just listed the principles that one must adhere to in reference to UCD. So, if you’re a business that wants to practice UCD while creating a design for a product then keep these principles in mind-

  • Empathy

Empathy is one of the key components when it comes to building something using a user-centered design approach. The whole point of UCD is to see things from the perspective of your users and understand their needs, emotions, and feelings when it comes to a product. A designer has to keep their own prejudices and opinions aside and try to think from users' point of view about how the user would perceive the product, only then they’ll be able to create a product that the user would want to indulge in.

  • Involvement of the User

When you’re following a user-centered design approach you make sure that the users are involved in the whole process from start to finish so that the designer can understand their requirements and can have them evaluate designs and give their input every step of the way. Moreover, if you’re incorporating user input in your process from the very beginning and you are less likely to face any unprecedented surprises at the end which might end up ruining the whole designing process.

  • Requirements Should Be Aligned

When you’re trying to build a product or website or app using the user-centered design approach then makes sure to keep the requirements aligned for both the user and the business. You do not want to build a product that the user wouldn’t like but at the same, you need to make sure that the purpose of the business is fulfilled. There should be harmony between the requirements of the user and the business only then the product would be a success.

  • Get Regular Feedback

When you’re in the designing process, make sure to take feedback from users at every step. The feedback should be both qualitative and quantitative. If you get feedback from users frequently then you match it up with the product you’re creating and figure out if there’s any gap between the two, and if there’s any gap then it can be filled promptly without having to wait till the end.

  • Iteration is the Key

It’s not very likely that you will get your product right in the first go. It’s highly likely that even after following the user-centered design approach you miss something which would make the user unhappy. Thus, apply iteration in your approach. Make sure to keep building on your products according to the feedback of the audience. For example, if you find an issue with the product in your prototyping phase then you need not worry. You can always learn from your mistakes, take user feedback into account, and rectify your mistake.

User-Centered Design Process

This might not be true for all businesses, but most designers that follow the user-centered design approach follow this process-

1.  To learn why and how users might utilize your product, conduct user research.

You must first identify your target audience before you can design for them. All UCD projects start with thorough research to identify your consumers, the difficulties they encounter, how and where they will interact with your product and more. After going through this step, you ought to have a clear knowledge of the motivations behind your target customers' purchases. You can utilize techniques like surveys, interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic research to initially determine a target audience (i.e., observing users in their natural environments). Start developing one or more user personas using this data. A variety of UX software solutions are also available to help with this.

A user persona is a fictionalized portrayal of the ideal customer. It serves as a stand-in that enables you to extrapolate to a broader user base of people with comparable traits (such as goals, needs, behavior, attitude, role at their company, etc.). It directs product development so that it satisfies user wants and eventually lines up with corporate objectives. Because they provide your audience with something concrete that stakeholders can refer to going forward, user personas are effective. The biggest characteristic of your persona is the difficulties they encounter. Find out what problems your research subjects have in common because these are the problems your product will try to tackle and are the source of your product’s value.

Find out where, when, and how your persona will utilize your product in its most likely context of use. All of these specifics can be incorporated into your persona because they distinguish your user base from others facing comparable difficulties.

Let's stick with the example used above of the navigation app. If we want to create a mobile navigation/map app for mountain bikers, we should first talk to them about the issues they face. We can do this by inviting some participants to the office or by visiting some of the trails ourselves and speaking to some riders in their free time.

We begin to create Mountain Bike Mike's identity from this effort. Mike frequently rides bicycling every weekend and enjoys discovering new routes in the region. He can't keep track of the routes he's already traveled, which is a problem he's encountered with other apps. This can be one of the primary issues that our app aims to solve. We'd also note that in Mike's persona, this app is used outdoors and while on the go, almost always on a smartphone (though wearables aren't off the table — either way, small screens), occasionally by himself but frequently with a friend, and that he's probably feeling more energized while using the app.

This indeed appears like a lot of work upfront. This action, though, is crucial. Building a user-focused basis will serve as the cornerstone for your product development. It's preferable to put in the hard work up front than to find out much later that your ideas are flawed and don't genuinely add value for people.

2.  Specify specifications that connect users' aspirations to organizational objectives.

You may begin defining the scope of your project once you have a solid grasp of your users. Your target market likely faces a wide range of issues, and it would be impossible to solve them all in the initial experience with your product. Because of this, when deciding on scope, you should consider where the objectives of your users and your company's objectives converge. Both users and your business should gain from your designs. Consider your prospective feature set and decide which ones offer users value and a high return on investment.

To establish which issues are most amenable to being addressed at this moment, this phase will also involve stakeholders outside of your design and research teams. And it's fair to return to step one if you find that there is still some uncertainty over what your users desire from a product. Better to be sure than to proceed and run the danger of creating a flawed product. Some researchers may have suggested adding a social networking component to our hypothetical mountain bike software so that users could connect and meet up on trails.

Although several research participants supported this, the product team finally decided that implementation would be too expensive at this time and that it would be better to focus on the app's original suggested use, which was as a mapping and navigation aid. This is not to argue that the concept of social networking should be abandoned, only put on hold for the time being.

3.  Create Solutions.

Here comes the fun part. Although completing research is exciting as well, this is the stage at which you can start creating the user journey maps, user flows, wireframes, mockups, and eventually high-fidelity prototypes for user testing. You will cycle through numerous sub-steps in this stage as your designs go from low fidelity to high-fidelity as your concepts solidify.

If you're developing software, this is also the time to define your information architecture, or how your product's features and content are organized in a way that's simple to grasp. A popular technique for figuring out information architecture is card sorting. Participants in this study method arrange cards that represent pages, content, and other information in a way that makes the best sense to them. Even before testing with fully developed prototypes, you can do small tests on your designs at any point in this process to make sure you're headed in the correct direction. Along the route, it's simple to get carried away with ideas, so keep checking to see if what you're doing lines up with your initial user study and objectives. Do you continue to produce for your persona?

Perhaps in the design of our mountain bike app, we put together user flows to determine how users will use the app to find new trails and perform card sorting to determine which features should be placed in the main user interface and which can be moved to a settings menu, and then construct the interface from a wireframe to a prototype that isn't quite a finished product but is close enough to simulate it.

4.  Have someone else evaluate your product.

You can conduct usability tests with your intended user group and observe how they interact with your product now that you have prototypes ready. You may, for instance, ask customers to complete a job using your product while noting their choices and activities and feedback. As an alternative, you could provide consumers with your prototype in a setting similar to their usual usage—in this case, mountain biking trails—and let them observe. Contextual inquiry is a technique that yields insightful qualitative data on the preferences and needs of consumers.

To learn as much as you can about the present state of your design and how it addresses user issues, you can also make use of the research techniques from step one, such as surveys and interviews. Take everything you learn and compare it to the project's original objectives. How effectively does your product handle the issues that your user faces?

Although it may appear simple at this point, maintaining the user-centric perspective can be the most challenging part of the process. You put a lot of time and effort into developing the perfect product for users by learning about their needs. Finding problems with it might be demoralizing. The fact is that your participants will run into problems. It's uncommon to get your product right the first time. You might even pick up information that you hadn't thought about earlier. Even if it appears as though the process is continuously putting roadblocks in your path, maintain your patience, attention, and trust in it.

5.  Make design iterations.

Your prototype testing is complete. Did you create your product flawlessly on your first attempt? No? Step five is the repetition of steps one through four until your product is prepared for sale.

One of the fundamental tenets of user-centered design is iteration. These steps can be repeated as many times as necessary. Before your product is in a decent spot, you might need to go back one step, a few steps, or redo the full process numerous times. As an illustration, suppose we test a prototype of our mountain bike software and discover that customers like it generally but feel that a few features should be enhanced. Redesign them and retest them in step three if necessary. Or you might discover that your basic perception of mountain bikers is flawed. If so, go back to step one and conduct more research.

Ask yourself whether there are any ways to make the product you have better if you have completely considered your user persona and whether you have satisfied your product and business criteria for this product version each time you iterate.

Conclusion

In the beginning, you must think that the idea of a user-centered design is simple and might already be used by everyone. However, let us assure you that a lot of businesses do not even know of the existence of a user-centered design approach, and if they do then they do not understand how much it can benefit their business.

This is one thing that’s common amongst all successful products. They all do not just aim towards solving a problem- they are solving problems- but their approach is more towards solving problems for users, and to accomplish this they follow a user-centric design (UCD) process.

Alekh Verma

CEO and Founder at eSearch Logix Technologies!

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