Think of your favorite product. It could be your smartphone, a piece of software, or your toaster. How does this product solve your specific problems, and why so well? Does it feel like the company behind it made an effort to really understand you as a consumer?
With successful products, that tends to be the case. These products don’t just solve a problem — they solve for their users. And when designing a product for users, your talent, knowledge, and intuition will only get you so far. For a truly user-centric product, you need a user-centered design process.
User-centered design, or UCD for short, is a game-changer for product teams. UCD forces stakeholders to dig deep into their users’ needs, feelings, beliefs, and habits, then craft a valuable product that rises to meet them. The result? You show your users that you care about and understand them, and they’ll love you for it.
In this post, we’ll introduce the core principles, benefits, and process of UCD, so you can start designing and iterating right away.
What is user-centered design?
User-centered design (UCD) is a design process that places focus on product users. Using various research techniques, UCD incorporates the needs and feelings of users to guide each phase of product design and development. UCD also heavily emphasizes iteration — ideas are tested and redesigned in order to achieve usable, satisfying, and emotionally impactful products.
At first, the concept of UCD may seem obvious. After all, users are the ones, well, using your product. Why wouldn’t you involve them?
The issue is that if we don’t incorporate users throughout the process, other forms of bias can creep in and steer us away from what users actually want. Personal opinions, standard practices of the industry, business goals, and general resistance to change can all affect what designers think a product should be and cause us to forget who we’re designing for.
That’s why user-centered design is important. It brings our focus back on the user by not just prioritizing them, but by framing entire projects around their needs, goals, and feelings. UCD does this by employing a variety of exploratory research and ideation methods to form a comprehensive understanding of the user, then using this understanding as the foundation of building a product.
Importantly, user-centered design isn’t about understanding just any user — it’s about your users, the ones you envision using your specific product. UCD considers the characteristics of a target audience and what makes them unique, as this informs what they’ll want to do with your product and how they’ll use it.
For instance, a mobile navigation app targeted at city dwellers will probably look different from a mobile navigation app for mountain bikers. These users will value different things, even if the general aims of both apps are the same.
User-Centered Design Benefits
As we’ll see, UCD is an intensive process. At first, it may seem like the resources needed to complete a cycle won’t be worth it. But, time after time, UCD has been proven to ultimately save on costs in the long run for two reasons.
First, UCD enables businesses to create better products that generate more revenue. Well-executed UCD produces products that align with users’ needs and wants. Users are more likely to buy these kinds of products, meaning more sales for you. Additionally, customers will be more satisfied with the product, build trust with your brand, recommend the product to others, and make more purchases down the road.
Second, UCD saves on development costs by catching issues early and often. By involving users, you usually find out what works and what doesn’t pretty quickly, meaning you’ll need to make fewer revisions later on. Imagine if you overlooked a critical issue post-launch — correcting that would be exponentially more costly than if you catch it early in the design phase.
User-Centered Design Principles
While different companies all take different approaches to the user-design process, UCD generally sticks to these core five principles in practice:
The entire point of UCD is to see things from the perspective of your users in order to build delightful products and experiences. The user-centered approach requires you to put your opinions aside and solve for the user at each step.
UCD involves users in the process from the start of any project to help set requirements, evaluate designs, and provide input. When you incorporate user input from the beginning, you’re less likely to have to overhaul your whole design later in the project.
Alignment of Requirements
Designers following the UCD approach strive to meet the requirements of both the business and the product users. It’s not always a given that these two will align.
Designers should be continually collecting feedback from users throughout the process to ensure that each decision matches up with user needs. This feedback can be both qualitative and quantitative.
Even with consistent user input, you’re probably not going to nail the design on your first try. That’s why user-centered design must be iterative: The design team ensures that the user experience continues to improve.
For example, you might discover something in your prototyping phase that reveals a misunderstanding of your users, requiring you to re-do your preliminary research. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s expected.
User-Centered Design Process
Again, not every business follows the same exact process of UCD. But, there are typically five general steps that designers adhere to: Research, aligning requirements with the business, building solutions, testing solutions, and iterating on designs.
Let's unpack each step in-depth.
1. Research users to understand why and how they would use your product.
To design for your users, you first need to figure out who your users are. All UCD projects begin with in-depth research to determine (1) who your users are, (2) what challenges they face, and (3) how and in what context they will interact with your product. Coming out of this phase, you should have a strong understanding of why your target users would want what you’re selling.
When first identifying a target audience, you can employ methods like surveys, interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic research (i.e., observing users in their natural environments). From this information, start to create one or more user personas. There are also a wealth of UX software tools to make this easier.
A user persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal user. It acts as a stand-in that lets you generalize to a larger user group of users with similar characteristics (such as goals, needs, behavior, attitude, role at their company, etc.). It guides product development to meet your users’ needs and eventually align with business goals. User personas are powerful because they frame your audience as something tangible that stakeholders can reference moving forward.
The most important trait of your persona is what challenges they face. Try to uncover common challenges among your research participants, as these will be the issues your product attempts to solve, and where the value of your product comes from.
Lastly, find out your product’s likely context of use — where, when, and how your persona will use your product. These details can all be included in your persona, since they make your user base unique from others with similar challenges.
Let’s continue with our navigation app example from earlier. If we want to build a navigation/maps mobile app for mountain bikers, we can first talk to mountain bikers about problems they have by bringing in some participants to the office and talking to them, or going out to the trails ourselves and talking to some (while they’re taking a break, of course).
From this work, we start to develop our persona, Mountain Bike Mike. Mike loves exploring new trails in the area, and typically goes biking every weekend. However, one issue he’s had with other apps is that he can’t track which routes he’s explored before. This could be one of the main problems our app tries to address.
In Mike’s persona, we’d also note that this application is used outdoors and on the move, almost always on a smartphone (though wearables aren’t out of the question — either way, small screens), sometimes alone but often with a friend, and he’s probably in a more energized state while using the app as well.
If this seems like a lot of effort up top, that’s because it is. However, this step is critical. You’re building a user-focused foundation on which you’ll base your product development. It’s better to do the heavy lifting now than discover deep into the process that your designs are misguided and don’t actually provide value for users.
2. Set requirements that align users’ goals with business goals.
With a good understanding of your users, you can start to define the scope of your project. You may find that your target demographic experiences many challenges, and it would be impossible to address all of them in the first interaction of your product.
That’s why, when determining scope, you should look at where the goals of your users and the goals of your business intersect. Your designs should benefit users and your company alike. Weigh your potential set of features and determine which provide both value for users and a high return on investment.
This phase will also involve stakeholders outside of your design and research teams to decide which problems are most feasible to address at this time. And, if you discover that there’s still some ambiguity as to what your users want from a product, it’s okay to go back to step one. Better to be sure than move forward and risk a misguided product.
In our mountain biking app example, some researchers might have floated the idea of a social networking aspect, that allows users to connect with other riders and meet up at trails.
Even though this received some support from research participants, the product team ultimately decides that implementation would be too costly at this point, and it makes more sense to pursue the app’s original proposed purpose, a mapping and navigation tool. This isn’t to say the social networking idea should be thrown out, just placed on the back burner for now.
3. Build solutions.
Now for the exciting part. I mean, research is exciting too, but this is the step when you can begin making all the materials you need to develop the product: user journey maps, user flows, wireframes, mockups, and eventually high-fidelity prototypes for conducting user testing.
Within this step, you’ll iterate through many sub-steps as your designs evolve from low- to high-fidelity and your ideas become more concrete. It’s an exciting time.
If you’re building software, this is also the phase to establish a clear information architecture, how the features and content of your product are grouped and structured in a way that’s easy to understand. Card sorting is a widely used method to determine information architecture. In this research method, participants arrange cards representing pages, content, and other information in a way that’s most logical for them.
Throughout this step, you can run miniature tests on your designs to confirm you’re moving in the right direction, even before testing with fleshed-out prototypes. It’s easy to get carried away with ideas along the way, so continue to ask whether what you’re building aligns with your preliminary user research and requirements. Are you still creating for your persona?
Perhaps in our mountain bike app design, we assemble user flows to plan out how bikers use the app to discover new trails, conduct card sorting to learn which items should go in the primary user interface and which can be relegated to a settings menu, and then build the interface up from a wireframe to a prototype that isn’t quite a finished product but is close enough to simulate it.
4. Test your and get feedback.
With prototypes at the ready, you can now conduct usability tests with your intended user group and watch how they experience your product. For example, you can ask users to accomplish some task in your product and see what choices they make while taking notes on their actions and feedback.
Alternatively, you can give users your prototype in the environment they typically use it (i.e., mountain biking trails) and simply observe. This practice, called contextual inquiry, produces valuable qualitative insights into what users like and what they could do without.
You can also utilize the research methods from step one, like interviews and surveys, to gather as much information as you can about the current state of your design and how it solves users’ problems. Take what you find, and check it against your initial goals for the project. How well is your product addressing the challenges of your persona?
While this phase of the process seems straightforward, it can also be the most difficult phase to stay user-centric. You’ve spent lots of time and energy learning about users and building their ideal product. Finding issues with it can feel discouraging.
The thing is, your participants will find issues. It’s rare to nail your product on the first try. You might even learn things you didn’t consider in prior stages. Stay patient and focused, and trust the process, even if it feels like the process is constantly putting obstacles in your way.
5. Iterate on designs.
You’ve finished your prototype testing. Did you get your product perfectly right on your first try? No? Then on to step five: repeating the past four steps until your product is ready for the market.
Iteration is one of the core principles of user-centered design. These steps are designed to be retraced however necessary. You may need to go back one step, several steps, or repeat the entire process multiple times before your product is in a good place.
For instance, say we test a prototype of our mountain biking app and find that users generally like it, but there are a couple of features they think could be improved. You can go back to step three, redesign them, and test them again. Or, you might find that your fundamental understanding of mountain bikers is inaccurate. In that case, it’s back to step one for more research.
Each time you iterate, ask yourself if there are any ways to improve the product you have, whether you’ve taken your user persona fully into account, and met your product and business requirements for this product version.
User-centric products require user-centric designers.
Okay, that was a bunch of information I just threw at you. When first learning about it, UCD can feel like a lot to take in. There are not only several core principles, but multiple steps (and steps within steps) that you’ll need to repeat over and over. It’s not uncommon to completely scrap the old design process when a company transitions to UCD.
However, the core concept of user-centered design couldn’t be simpler: To design for users, you need to design with users. When you do this, you eliminate bias and guesswork in favor of high-quality product experiences that users will enjoy and, most importantly, buy.