User-centred design - the fundamentals

by Georgios Maninis on 27 February 2013

Our programme manager, Clara Teoh, recently asked our UX team to contribute their thoughts to help in the preparation of our upcoming UCD training course.

For me, this was an opportunity to dig into my personal repository of academic notes and online resources in an effort to define User-centred Design and User Experience, their guiding principles and pitfalls. It was a reflective 'back to the basics'!

I have read articles that consider Dieter Rams methodology and Apple's design approach 'user-centred', but designing simple and user-friendly products doesn't necessarily mean that the approach is user-centred. User-centred is often used as a buzzword and like any buzzword, it's often misused.

At the same time, I stumbled upon discussion on various UX blogs questioning or defending the capabilities of user-centred design towards achieving innovation. This topic wasn't new to me the different philosophies in design methodologies has been a hot topic for years, maybe since design was founded as a discipline.

My thoughts on UCD will be separated into two posts: this one deals with the guiding principles of user-centred design and how you can implement them, while part two (coming soon!) will add to the ongoing discussion on Innovation vs. User-centred design.

What are the basic, guiding principles of ‘user-centred design’?

I find Gould and Lewis’ (1985) paper extremely useful in answering this question. In their article they argue there are three principles of designing for usability: early focus on users and tasks, empirical measurement and iterative design. As design principles they are timeless. Below I have tried to expand on these principles and update them for today’s user centred design processes.

Early focus on users and tasks

Focus must be given on understanding users’ behaviour, tasks and goals, their physical and cognitive characteristics and the context of use. How do you achieve this? The most insightful way is to conduct some qualitative research: observations in situ, interviews and even diary studies. Based on your research findings, create personas. Try to avoid any stereotypes and let the research findings speak. After the primary persona is chosen, design for his/her needs first. In the worst case scenario when there’s no budget for user research, try to get hold of internal stakeholders that might know your target audience well. It’s likely that there are people in the client’s organisation that often get in touch with the target audience or they might have done some research in the past. Find these stakeholders and interview them.

Empirical measurement

Given the business goals and the user needs, it’s time to set the design objectives. Critical parameters or even your KPIs, which are quantifiable, can also inform design decisions. Sketching, wireframing and prototyping are key to the design process, as they allow measuring the design concepts against the quantified goals. There are various methods with which the designs can be tested. The most popular is usability testing. Start by testing concepts, wireframes and finally high-fidelity prototypes. From my experience, lo-fi prototypes are good for testing the information architecture, the flows and the navigation. After replacing ‘lorem ipsum’ with real text, choosing a readable but attractive font, and adding all the important visual elements the prototype is ready to be tested for its content and aesthetics. Obviously you won’t get any valid statistical data from usability testing, but it will reveal issues that you did not design for. Again, in the worst case where the tight budget doesn’t allow for participants’ recruitment, A/B testing (link) is a good alternative but it requires an intelligent setup of the site’s analytics. Another alternative is stakeholder workshops, in which you can share your sketches and take some feedback from people who have close relationship with end-users. However, doing only this might be dangerous because these people will approach the design from their own - often the organisation’s - perspective which might conflict with users’ point of view.

Iterative design

Allow time for trial and error. Who gets the whole design right in the first attempt? Now that the results from the empirical experiments are known, allocate time for review and problems fixing. Rapid iterative prototyping can be really fun and flexible, as it allows tweaking the prototype within half an hour between the usability testing sessions. Therefore, using the rights tools for the proper occasions is also crucial. Remember that no design is final. Some needs and behaviours change vastly over time. Iterations on the same product might last for years and must be continuous. The ideal would be that you follow all of the aforementioned principles, but this is not the case if you have to face tight budgets and deadlines. It’s easy to distinguish a user-centred design process which involves users (as discussed above) and the ‘user-centred’ design that focuses the experience around the user in the sense that an organisation might care for their users, they might want to satisfy their needs or promote their product as ‘useful’, ‘purposeful’, ‘usable’ and ‘ergonomic’, but they haven’t done any actual user-centred design. Now I have explained what I think user-centred design is, next I will be sharing my view on the user-centred design and innovation debate, I know you can’t wait! References [1] Gould, J. and Lewis, C. (1985). Designing for Usability: Henry Ledgard Editor Key Principles and What Designers Think. Communications of the ACM, 28 (3), 300-311.

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