The Essential Principles of User-Centered Design
World War II was a turning point in the world of design. Prior to the war user-interfaces were designed, and then people were taught how to use them ( known as “designing the human to fit the machine”).
During the war this changed, largely due to military necessity. World War I had seen the use of the then-newly-invented airplanes in combat. But at the beginning of WWII the need for many more pilots made it impractical to select the pilots to fit the planes—planes needed to be designed to allow for a wider diversity of pilots.
So the cockpit was redesigned to figure out how all those knobs and buttons could be optimally positioned in such a way that the pilot could fly the plane without incident, they could be used comfortably with a minimal amount of stress, and so that the whole experience would cause the least amount of injury to the pilot’s body.
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They called this process designing for “Human Factors” and out of it sprang the concept of ergonomics (hardware design), usability engineering (software design), and most recently, user-centered design.
What is User-Centered Design?
User-Centered Design (UCD) takes that same concept—creating designs that make sense for the user, instead of trying to teach the user how to use a complicated design—and applies it to web design.
Using a User-Centered Design approach to website design creates an exceptional user experience by placing the user at the center of the design process. That requires us to focus on the user and their tasks early on, involving users in the process through usability testing and then design iteratively, making sure at each step of the way that the designs are successful.
As a business, this is essential to ensuring your website design shows you a healthy return on investment (ROI) while providing your customers with a positive brand experience.
Every time you go through usability testing you improve the usability of your product by 42%.
— Nielsen/Norman Group
Many Fortune 500 companies are leveraging usability testing to boost revenue and decrease costs. Case studies throughout the industry show incredible results.
- Ford Motor Company spend $70K to build usability test labs and saved $100K with their very first test session.
- American Airlines decreased development costs 60-90% by correcting usability problems in the design phase.
- IBM saw an average reduction of 9.6 minutes per task, leading to $6.8M saved in one year. They also saw a 400% increase in sales and 123% increase in traffic after redesigning their website.
How does User-Centered Design work?
The key with User-Centered Design is to remember that people don’t look at software and web solutions objectively; even the first time they arrive on your site, they have preconceived notions of how a website should work and prebuilt associations that lead them to expect certain types of information to be in specific places within your site.
Those preconceived notions come from their past experiences online and their expectations of your brand—we call this their “Mental Model.” Yet, each user’s specific Mental Model may be slightly different. So how can we find what commonalities exist among our users and incorporate these into our designs? A UCD Approach works to answer this question at every step of the process.
When starting a new User-Centered Design we begin by asking:
As we progress through the first steps of the UCD process, we try to answer a series of questions.
- Who do we think will use this site?
- What are those users looking to find or accomplish?
- What are your competitors doing to solve these problems?
- How well is your current site or solution solving these issues?
- What best practices make sense for this design?
These questions are deceptively simple. Often companies have preconceptions about their users, which may or may not be true. It’s not until we talk to users that we can begin to understand their true pain-points when using an existing site and can begin to understand the Mental Models at play.
Once we’ve gathered that information, we begin our first designs—usually pencil and paper sketches. Then we share those with users for additional feedback. From there we undergo the process of incorporating user feedback and iterating on our designs.
At every step of the process we ask:
- Does this work?
- What would make it better?
The End Result: Using UCD
We gradually work up to high-fidelity design comps, testing at each step of the process. Each test usually goes three-plus pages deep, to ensure we’re considering how users will move from one page to another and where they expect information to be located, not just the design of on page. Depending on the project, we may begin with more than one design (ideally, we opt to begin with three very different designs), taking each one through this process until we determine what is truly the best solution for the site’s users.
The end result is a design that feels intuitive to users. Information is located where they expect and the process of finding it feels seamless and smooth.
Does your site need an optimized design? Reach out to us today to get started.
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