User Centered Design: A Designer Point of View

Ahmed Ashour
Senior UI/UX Graphic Designer at
August 24, 2021
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What is user-centered design in action? How could any designer create user-centered products?

I think every designer's dream is to create a product that his users truly love and easily use; and user-centered design seems to be a brilliant way to reach that goal. To understand what user-centered design really is, let's go through its definition, principles and process as well.

In this blog, we will give a spotlight on a familiar concept that could be confusing to designers due to how often people throw the term "User-Centered" around.

What is user-centered design?

User-Centered Design (UCD) means that designers set out to create the process where any product, such as the user interface (UI) of a website or an application, is being designed from the perspective of how it will be understood and used by a human user. It reflects the user's needs and preferences as well.

Does that mean all products are user-centered? No, it doesn't. Some products are human-centered, while others are user-centered. The difference between the two terms is that all products are made for humans but not all humans are the users you are designing for. You have to design for the right people, for your users.

“User-centered design (UCD) is an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.”

IDF - Interaction Design Foundation Definition

Why is designing based on User-Centered Design (UCD) important?

By designing with a constant focus on the user, designers are no longer free to express themselves in their work by any means. They are forced to focus on what the user likes to see or on how they behave.

They need to be close to the user’s personality and how they will interact with the product, their pain points, main goals and mental behaviours. It’s not just about discovering the problem but also the context around that problem.

By designing with a focus on the user's behaviours and goals, the design would be more usable and accessible. The result of a design based on UCD is a successful user experience.

User-Centered design is a bit like a way of thinking or framework. Its goal is to help designers keep focusing on the user.

Principles of user-centered design

All about the user

It’s all about creating a tailored product for the user, which makes it necessary to have users actively participating in the design.

At first, it would be a bit difficult to involve the users in the design process, with matters like: observation sessions and one-to-one interviews, which would potentially cost a lot. But after all they have benefits like increasing the product's chance of success.

The more you are close to the user, the more you understand their pain points and feedback, the more they love your product. As a closure, it's not what the designers think is best, but rather what the user thinks is best.

Less chance of errors

Errors could happen in a technical way, that's true. But not all errors are technical, users’ actions could cause errors as well; a user can't register on an e-shopping website, and therefore can't progress in their task. This is a close example about the disconnection between what the designers thought the experience would be and what the user actually experienced.

How to avoid predicted mistakes?

Designers should put into consideration users’ behaviours, using the usability test and observing several users interacting with the product. This helps them create products that speak the user's language. If we are truly careful to create a product that reflects users' needs, there will be less errors in general – generating a safer and better product as a whole.

Follow data numbers

To stay on track, this is a core principle that helps designers when it comes to letting users make the decision. The data will tell you what users think.

Try to collect data about your users' interactions with your product to make decisions based on their own opinions.

The process of user-centered design

UCD comes with a certain mindset, helping designers keep track of what’s important. The main idea is that we seek to understand, we ideate and we put the solution to vigorous testing. This is a way of seeing the design process that can be adapted and implemented with Agile and Lean design teams, large teams in big companies or small design teams in a startup.

So the process has 5 phases

1. User research:

As we have clarified before, understanding the user and his problems are absolutely crucial. User research is a necessary phase in building user-centric products, with its findings in guiding and supporting all design decisions.

The main crucial questions we may ask: Who are you designing for? Who are my targeted users? Why will they use the product? What problem do these users have? How will they feel when using it? What is the context of this problem? After collecting answers for these questions, try to find out as much as you can about the people you'll be designing for. You can take what you learn and create the relevant user personas to help guide your team. And you do that by talking to people by using different techniques like creating surveys or doing real life questionnaires.

One thing to bear in mind at this phase is that you need to know the reasons behind this problem. This includes not just who the user is and what the problem is, but also all the context around the problem. When do they have this problem? What are the consequences? What would be the benefits if the problem in question was solved?

2. Gathering requirements:

Once you have a clear vision of who you're designing for and what the problem is, you can define what you could do to solve this problem. This could happen when considering what you could influence with your product and how, from technical and design perspectives.

But you should be aware of something else here, aside from the design requirements, there are also business requirements.

You should then find a common ground among them. While trying to fix the problem in a certain way, this may not coincide with business stakeholders who seek to profit from the entire venture. It’s important for the overall project that both sides agree on what the true requirements are, so you make sure that project is stable for a long time.

3. Ideate solution:

Alright. After knowing what we are doing and who we're doing it for, this is where we can really have some fun and get creative:

Ideation. This is where designers get to do the beloved thing and see how their ideas play out. This phase can vary from a design team to another.

But before we can actually start sketching page designs, it's really important that we take a look holistically at the entire journey that the user has to go through using our product. Most of the time, we are designing within a system and it's essential to have an understanding of how everything fits together. When we understand the machine, we can design the individual parts with greater precision.

For initial bones, you can start with wireframing, but it is important to have information architecture (IA) and general primary navigation design. Both the IA and the navigation will form the backbone of your product, so it’s important to take your time and get them right.

From there, it's all about building the design. You have to be user-centric and validate your design in every step. Start out early and test a lot. By wireframing from the bare bones early, by sketching on papers or any software tools, your team already has something tangible that you can test and validate.

In UX design, very few processes are actually linear. Much like the design thinking process, the user-centered design is a constant back-and-forth where you can test each new aspect of the design. It either passes the test or it fails. When it fails, it’s important to understand where you went wrong and to respect the data.

4. Test design against requirements

After passing through all these steps, and having a high-fidelity prototype, the product would have  passed all its tests and it comes to the part where you compare the prototype to the requirements that you've gathered with the stakeholders. It can cast a new light on your prototype.

Some actually compare the prototype and usability test results in this phase, while others focus on the usability testing. It is a good thing to measure up the requirements with your product. Usability studies should tell us all the answers we need.

After doing a lot of testing, you  should come to a conclusion knowing if the product performs its function properly or not. Does it actually solve the problem? How much effort do users need to put in the experience? Can users complete tasks without errors? What's the conversion rate on each button?

5. Keep enhancements. Iterate.

It’s common for design teams to create several versions of the same screen and test them against each other. The preferred one will earn its place in the product. However, the winning one can have some improvements.

As part of a user-centric product is accepting the mistakes that could happen, each part of the design could need iteration over and over again because you want to learn and understand how to take something good and make it better. Testing these improvements with actual users can deliver surprising results, and they will save a lot of problems in the future.

This is why we use prototypes in delivering our ideas and validating them.

The wrap up

User-centered design is a philosophy or mindset that you hear about a lot, but it is actually how you design products that have a real impact in a specific way. Finally, the users are the ones who tell you what works and what doesn’t, and learning to hear their voice through data is a crucial skill that will make you a designer with true insight in any project.

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