User-centred design by Alison Black

The basics of user-centred design

Apple iPod

The most successful designs come from understanding the needs of the people that use them. Alison Black gives an insight into how a user-centred approach can lead to innovative products and services that deliver real consumer benefit.

Some products such as the Post it note are born after a ‘Eureka’ moment but most see the light of day only after a period market testing and user research. However, this research often comes at the end of the design process. Ideally it should be incorporated at the beginning and, most importantly, involve the users themselves.

The basics of user-centred design

The central premise of user-centred design is that the best-designed products and services result from understanding the needs of the people who will use them. User-centred designers engage actively with end-users to gather insights that drive design from the earliest stages of product and service development, right through the design process.

A user-centred approach can generate new insights in all design projects but it is particularly useful when a new product or service is to be introduced or where a step-change in an existing product or service is required. Awareness of the experience of end-users can lead designers to question established practices and assumptions - and it can yield innovation that delivers real user benefit.

People often cite counter-examples of products whose origins lie in the inspired idea of an innovator (Post-Its) or evolve from a technical application (SMS messaging). But even where the initial insight may not stem from a user-centred approach, development to implement a successful product benefits from a focus on the people who will use it.

Engaging with consumers

While most designers are conscious of the need to design for end-users, they often base their understanding of users on their own experience or on findings from market research. In contrast, user-centred designers engage with potential users directly, believing that understanding the details of individuals' experience gives greater insight than the aggregated reports of market research, and that what people tell market researchers they do doesn't always tally with what they actually do when observed in their own context.

Many standard design projects also involve customer or user feedback in the latter stages of concept development. But user-centred designers start engaging with users during the early, formative stages to set the agenda for their projects, rather than waiting until it may be too late to make significant changes.

User observation and analysis

User observation is based on ethnographic methods: the designer immerses him or herself in the users' context (for example, spending time with users as they go about relevant tasks at work or home). However, whereas ethnographers observe and participate in people's lives in order to understand their culture, observational researchers ask open-ended questions, directed at both the practical aspects of people's tasks and the social and emotional significance they have.

Immersion in context is critical to user-centred design: it exposes unexpressed needs that would be impossible to pick up without the full context. Where products and services are to be used by groups of people co-operating together (for example, nurse and patient or groups of team workers), the full dynamic of their interactions can be appreciated through observation.

Observational research needs to be analysed in order to draw out key themes to be taken forward into design. It is usually recorded visually (either video or stills) so that highlights can be presented back to design teams and form the basis for idea development. The more vivid the presentation and clearer the analysis, the more likely it is to make an impact on the design team and shape product or service development.

Prototyping, evaluation and iteration

As design ideas and concepts develop, user-centred designers continue gathering input from end-users, either involving them directly in design development or showing them prototypes based on their ideas for evaluation. According to the project and concept being developed, prototypes can vary from written scenarios and sketches showing broad functionality, through paper- or screen-based prototypes that stimulate aspects of functionality, to fully working models that represent full functionality.

Depending on the level of development of the prototypes, users can be asked to 'walk through' them as if they were carrying out a task, or to use them to carry out simulated or real-life tasks. These prototypes provide opportunities for feedback both on the general fit of the product or service to people's needs and on its step-by-step usability.
As with observation, the feedback from prototype evaluation needs to be analysed and its results taken forward into design thinking as part of an iterative process of designing and evaluating. Here again, vivid presentation may be needed to persuade team members who were not involved in the evaluation that there are issues to address. So it can be good idea to video evaluation sessions, both so you can go back and see what actually happened and add weight to any points you may need to make.

Representing the full range of user need

The purpose of user research in design is to inspire and focus the design team rather than gather quantitative data (although a quantitative approach may be appropriate at the final stages of testing usability). When time and budget are constrained, the emphasis should be on gathering input from the widest range of users possible (most products and services have different kinds of users), rather than on carrying out repeat observations or evaluations with the same kind of user. This should mean that the full potential for design responses is understood.

In more depth
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About the author

Portrait of Alison Black

Alison Black is a psychologist specialising in developing user-focused products and services. She consults to design agencies, technology companies and public sector organisations.



Other definitions

User-centred design is also known as: contextual inquiry, customer-focused design, empathic design, participatory design, usability, usability engineering, usability testing, user experience design (UXD), user-focused design, user-friendly design.