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User-centered design (UCD) is a project approach that puts the intended users of a site at the centre of its design and development. It does this by talking directly to the user at key points in the project to make sure the site will deliver upon their requirements.

The stages are carried out in an iterative fashion, with the cycle being repeated until the project's usability objectives have been attained. This makes it critical that the participants in these methods accurately reflect the profile of your actual users.

ISO 13407 outlines four essential activities in a user-centered design project:

  • Requirements gathering - Understanding and specifying the context of use
  • Requirements specification - Specifying the user and organisational requirements
  • Design - Producing designs and prototypes
  • Evaluation - Carrying out user-based assessment of the site

The following is a typical top-level characterisation of the most popular user-centered design methods:

Method Cost Output Sample size When to use
Focus groups Low Non-statistical Low Requirements gathering
Usability testing High Statistical & non-statistical Low Design & evaluation
Card Sorting High Statistical High Design
Participatory design Low Non-statistical Low Design
Questionnaires Low Statistical High Requirements gathering & evaluation
Interviews High Non-statistical Low Requirements gathering & evaluation

Focus groups

What are they?

A focus group involves encouraging an invited group of intended/actual users of a site (i.e. participants) to share their thoughts, feelings, attitudes and ideas on a certain subject.

Organising focus groups within an organisation can also be very useful in getting buy-in to a project from within that company.

When to use

Focus groups are most often used as an input to design. They generally produce non-statistical data and are a good means of getting information about a domain (e.g. what peoples' tasks involve).

Issues

It's necessary to have an experienced moderator and analyst for a focus group to be effective.

Usability testing

What is it?

Usability testing sessions evaluate a site by collecting data from people as they use it. A person is invited to attend a session in which they'll be asked to perform a series of tasks while a moderator takes note of any difficulties they encounter.

Users can be asked to follow the think-aloud protocol which asks them to verbalise what they're doing and why they're doing it.

You can also time users to see how long it takes them to complete tasks, which is a good measure of efficiency (although you should bear in mind that using the 'think aloud' protocol will slow users down considerably).

Two specialists' time is normally required per session - one to moderate, one to note problems.

When to use

Usability testing can be used as an input to design or at the end of a project. It represents an excellent way finding out what the most likely usability problems with a site are likely to be.

Usability testing can be used generate non-statistical or statistical data.

Issues

Usability testing requires some form of design to be available to test - even if it's only on paper. Testing works best if it focuses either on gathering non-statistical feedback on a design through 'talk aloud' or statistical measures.

Card sorting

What is it?

Card sorting is a method for suggesting intuitive structures/categories. A participant is presented with an unsorted pack of index cards. Each card has a statement written on it that relates to a page of the site.

The participant is asked to sort these cards into groups and then to name these groups. The results of multiple individual sorts are then combined and analysed statistically.

When to use

Card sorting is usually used as an input to design. It's an excellent way of suggesting good categories for a site's content and deriving its information architecture.

Card sorting can be used generate statistical data.

Issues

Providing participants with a trial run on some easy cards (e.g. sports, animals, etc.) can reassure about what they are expected to do and result in a more productive session.

Participatory design

What is it?

Participatory design does not just ask users opinions on design issues, but actively involves them in the design and decision-making processes.

When to use

Participatory design is usually used within a mini-project to generate prototypes that feed into an overall project's design process.

An example would be a participatory design workshop in which developers, designers and users work together to design an initial prototype. This initial prototype would then feed into a more traditional design process.

Projects which only utilise participatory design are very rare.

Issues

Participatory design sessions can be very fluid and require an experienced moderator with thorough knowledge of the domain to guide them.

Questionnaires

What are they?

Questionnaires are a means of asking users for their responses to a pre-defined set of questions and are a good way of generating statistical data.

When to use

Questionnaires are usually employed when a design team:

  • Can only gain remote access to users of a site
  • Is seeking a larger sample size than can be realistically achieved through direct contact

It is for this reason that questionnaires are usually administered through post or electronic means.

Issues

Questionnaires allow statistical analysis of results, which can increase a study's credibility through its scientific appearance. This makes it all the more important that the questionnaire is well-designed and asks non-biased questions.

Interviews

What are they?

An interview usually involves one interviewer speaking to one participant at a time.

The advantages of an interview are that a participant's unique point of view can be explored in detail. It is also the case that any misunderstandings between the interviewer and the participant are likely to be quickly identified and addressed.

The output of an interview is almost exclusively non-statistical - it's critical that reports of interviews are carefully analysed by experienced practitioners.

When to use

Interviews are usually employed early in the design process in order to gain a more detailed understanding of a domain/area of activity or specific requirements.

Issues

Interviewing places a high premium on the experience and skill of the interviewer and analyst.

Conclusion

This has been an introduction to the major user-centered design methods. It's vital to remember that although each can be extremely valuable, using them in the right way, for the right reasons and at the right time is critical.

Exactly which method to use, and when and how to use it will differ from project to project.

Have us carry out user-centered design for you!

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This article was written by Tim Fidgeon. Tim's crazy about web usability - so crazy that he now works for Webcredible, an industry leading user experience consultancy, helping to make the Internet a better place for everyone. When he's not conducting user research he can usually be found creating innovative information architecture.

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