The hallmark of a successful product is that it solves a problem for the user. To create a genuinely user-friendly product, your organization needs to harness the power of user-centered design. Think of your favorite product. It could be your smartphone, a web design tool you love using, or even your toaster. How does the product solve your specific pain points, and how does it achieve this so well? Does it feel like the company that produced the item made an effort to understand your wants as a consumer?
If so, you've experienced the result of user-centered design yourself. User-centered design (UCD) is a game-changer for product teams, forcing stakeholders to dig deeper into users' needs, beliefs, feelings, and habits. Then, you can create a valuable product that rises to meet those challenges. As a result, you can demonstrate to your users that you care and understand them. In exchange, you'll earn their loyalty.
Let's dive into the core user-centered design principles, benefits, and processes. Then, you can begin designing and iterating right away.
- What is user-centered design?
- Why is the user-centered design process so important?
- What is a user-centered design example?
- What are the benefits of implementing user-centered design principles?
- What are the main user-centered design principles?
- What is the user-centered design process?
- Three Tips for Implementing User-Centered Design Principles
What is user-centered design?
User-centered design (UCD) focuses on product users. By implementing 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 to achieve usable, satisfying, and emotionally impactful products.
We get it — the concept of UCD might seem obvious. After all, users are the ones that are, well, using your product. Why wouldn't you prioritize what's meaningful to them?
The main 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 want. Personal opinions, standard industry practices, business goals, and general resistance to change can all impact what designers think a product should be. This causes them to forget who they're designing for. The result can be a product that isn't effective for users.
Lindsay Derby, Senior Product Designer on the Sales Enablement team at HubSpot, explains it best. "User-centered design is an iterative design approach that is fundamentally driven by making decisions based on the user needs," she says. "This process involves a research phase in which designers need to fully understand the context of the use cases and specific user requirements. The designer will work to balance business objectives with these user needs to achieve the final design. User-centered design requires empathy for the users and balances the pragmatic approach needed for designing for a company or client. Design solutions are iteratively evaluated and improved, ideally by testing with actual or prospective end users."
Why is the user-centered design process so important?
User-centered design brings our focus back to the user by prioritizing them and framing entire projects around their feelings, needs, and goals. UCD does this by employing various exploratory research and ideation methods to understand the user comprehensively. Once this robust comprehension of the user is created, designers can use what they know to build a product they'll love.
According to Derby, a major reason UCD is so successful is that it considers how users naturally do things — and incorporates that into the design.
"User-centered design takes into account the user's natural way of doing things based on their inherent behavior and established mental models," says Derby. "It is important not to try and impose the design and technology on the user and force people to adjust. We have all encountered UIs that try and force us to use the system in an unfamiliar way. It is confusing and often frustrating. User-centered design attempts to deliver a much more integrated and pleasing experience that will leave the user with a positive impression and also able to complete the desired business objective without having to needlessly adapt."
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.
What is a user-centered design example?
Wondering what user-centered design looks like in practice? Here's an example. "If we are trying to sell clothing online and the end goal is for the user to complete a purchase, then we want to design the check-out experience in a way that is most closely aligned with how we know our users will shop," says Derby. "If we have research to support that most shopping at our website is done from mobile devices, it would make the most sense for us to design mobile-optimized check-out experiences like integrating with mobile pay, numeric keypad defaults, and large touch points.
Here we are aligning the business goal to sell clothing with the user need for a smooth mobile checkout experience. Using a user-centered design approach adds a layer of confidence and strategy to design decisions while also showing empathy for the humans who will be interacting with your designs."
As we mentioned earlier, your UCD efforts should be tailored specifically to suit your users. 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.
What are the benefits of implementing user-centered design principles?
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, implementing the user-centered design process will save you money 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, which means 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 quickly, meaning you'll need to make fewer revisions later. Imagine if you overlooked a critical issue post-launch — correcting that would be exponentially more costly than catching it early in the design phase.
What are the main user-centered design principles?
The entire point of UCD is to see things from the perspective of your users in order to build delightful products and experiences. By putting aside your opinions and solving for the user, you can more effectively build a product that will check all their boxes.
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.
Next up is user involvement. When you implement a user-centered design process, you will involve your users from the beginning of the project to the end. Having users involved at the start is helpful as you can better set requirements, and they can provide feedback or evaluate designs.
By incorporating user input from the get-go, you'll save valuable time, energy, and money down the road because you won't have to overhaul your whole design later in the project.
Alignment of Requirements
Next, designers that follow the UCD approach strive to meet the requirements of the business and the people who actually use the product. 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.
What is the 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:
Who the users are
What obstacles they face
How and in what context they will interact with your product
Coming out of this phase, you should comprehensively understand why your target users would want what your company is offering.
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. For instance, user personas.
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 for the sake of the UCD process is considering what challenges they face. Try to uncover common difficulties 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. Suppose we want to build a navigation/maps mobile app for mountain bikers. In that case, 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 develop our persona, Mountain Bike Mike. Mike loves exploring new trails in the area and typically bikes 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 to 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 users value.
2. Set requirements that align users’ goals with business goals.
With a good understanding of your users, you begin 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 provides both user value 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 now. And, if you discover that there's still some ambiguity about 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. Don't leave any questions unanswered.
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 the most logical way.
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 asking whether your building aligns with your preliminary user research and requirements. Are you still creating for your persona?
Perhaps in our mountain bike app design example, 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 their choices 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 observe. This practice, called contextual inquiry, produces valuable qualitative insights into what users like and could do without. Adding this to your user-centered design process gives you real-life information regarding what users love — and what they can 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 process phase seems straightforward, it can also be the most challenging 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 something 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 or 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 some features they think could be improved. You can return to step three, redesign them, and test them again. Or, you might find your fundamental understanding of mountain bikers 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 your product and whether you've taken your user persona fully into account and met your product and business requirements for this product version.
When you reach this point, pat yourself on the back — you're doing great implementing user-centered design principles!
Three Tips for Implementing User-Centered Design Principles
Want even more information about best practices for implementing user-centered design principles? Here are Derby's top three tips.
First, she recommends that you use the resources you already have as you implement UCD principles. "Lean on existing mental models," suggests Derby. "As designers, it can be tempting to create new and innovative solutions for every design problem. However, a key goal of user-centered design is to reduce unnecessary mental effort for the users. If there is an existing flow that works and is widely familiar, there should be a very compelling reason, backed by research, to change it. Think long and hard before you decide to move the close button to the bottom corner of the screen."
Next, Derby reiterates the importance of seeking feedback promptly. She says, "Seek feedback early and often. It is much easier to change a design while it is still in the planning and prototyping phase than when it is being developed." If you act early enough, you'll be able to fix anything you need to without wasting plenty of time or money.
Last but not least, Derby reminds us that you're not building a product for yourself; you're building for the user. "Accept that you are not the user," she advises. "It is ok to make assumptions based on your professional experience and skills, but do not assume that you know how the user will feel about the design or how they will use it. We can only understand with testing and continuous iteration."
User-centric products require user-centric designers.
When first learning about it, UCD can feel like a lot to absorb. There are several core principles and multiple steps (and steps within steps) that you'll need to repeat numerous times. It's not uncommon to entirely scrap the old design process when a company transitions to UCD.
However, the core concept of user-centered design couldn't be more straightforward: To design for users, you need to design with users. Doing this eliminates bias and guesswork in favor of high-quality product experiences that users will enjoy and, most importantly, buy.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in June 2022 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.