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User-Centred Design and Why it is Important

Too often, systems and applications are designed with a focus on business goals, fancy features, and the technological capabilities of hardware or software. All of these approaches to design forget about the most important part of the process – the end user.

User-centred design is the mindset of placing the person using the application at the centre of the design process, rather than the application itself. What it boils down to is always thinking from the user's perspective and striving to research, design and build solutions that never make the user think about what they need to do next.

Why user-centred design is it important

The lack of user-centred design can cost time and effort and can greatly determine the success or failure of a project.

  • From the user's perspective, it is the difference between completing a task or not.
  • From the developer's perspective, it is the success or failure of a project, application or system.
  • From the executive's perspective, it saves time, cuts costs, improves satisfaction and ultimately saves money.

Organizations that are investing in user-centred design are outperforming their competitors and seeing far greater ROI than companies that are lagging behind in user-centred design.

Research – Understanding the needs of the user

For a user-centred design to be effective, it is essential to find out as much information as possible. This helps to combat the natural tendency to design for ourselves (or our stakeholders) rather than designing for our target audience.

The focus should be on "deeper" insights rather than more superficial aspects. For example, rather than asking whether users like the online forum, it may be more appropriate to question whether an online forum is the best way for the user to accomplish their goal.

  • Who is the user?
  • Why are they using this tool?
  • What are they trying to do?
  • What is their experience level?
  • What information might they need?
  • What format do they want it in?
  • How do they think it should work?

There are a number of different methods for collecting user research. The important part is that you are getting the information directly from the end-user.

  • Interviews Focus
  • Groups Card
  • Sorting Surveys
  • Observations

Design – Don't make the user think

The user-centred design process typically focuses on using simple sketches, mockups or wireframes on parts or all of the designs. This makes for a much faster and cost-effective design process, rather than building the end product and they having to make expensive changes if it isn't meeting user needs.

  • Start by designing flow structure and navigation to support main tasks.
  • Produce prototypes (ranging from simple paper mock-ups to interactive computer-based prototypes) to obtain user feedback on the extent to which proposed solutions meet user needs. Their use will make the potential outcome and interaction scenario more tangible to users.
  • Design iterations should be evaluated from a user perspective. This should be done early and continuously during the design process. Design solutions are improved until requirements are met.

Adapt – Nothing is perfect

As design solutions are assessed, feedback of results should be fed back to the designers quickly. The objective is to improve the design based on user feedback. Iterative design implies a process of design, evaluation, redesign.

Evaluation activities should begin early in development and continue in frequently throughout.

  • Early in development, users can be asked to step through their tasks following a sequence of screen sketches or paper prototypes.
  • If it is impossible to involve user, usability experts may be able to evaluate designs by "walking through" designs based on user and task goals.
  • Working prototypes can be tested more formally by users carrying out typical tasks. Task completion and task completion rates are key factors.
  • A usability lab is not always essential but it does have the advantage that developer may watch and discuss the tests without disturbing the user.
  • When a complete prototype is available, usability requirements for user performance and satisfaction can be tested.

Measure - If you don't measure it, you can't improve it

Metrics are an integral part of having a long-lasting, effective design. Measurement is not about having perfect knowledge, but rather about creating a mechanism for understanding what needs to be improved, where to apply the limited usability, design and development resources available to make the biggest impact to the user.

  • Quickly identify any user experience issues that are negatively impacting the user.
  • Know exactly what changes to make to alleviate those issues.
  • Measure and demonstrate the impact of those changes.

Typically, usability of a design is measured relative to user's' performance on a given set of test tasks.

  • Success rate (ex. completed web form)
  • The time a task requires (ex. analytics time on page)
  • The error rate (ex. server logs) users' subjective satisfaction (ex. feedback survey)