User-Centered Approach to Product Design And Its Alternatives

October 7, 2014

Building great products is not easy. Although many entrepreneurs still believe that just because they use some products or have an opinion about them, they can also design and build them. Of course, there is always a room for geniuses, but the harsh truth for most of is that the best products are created through trial and error, years of experience, and attempts to understand & improve user experience. No wonder that User-Centered Design (an iterative methodology that puts the user at the center of all design decisions) has become one of the most wide-spread design processes and approaches to creating successful products.

There is nothing too crazy about UCD. Together with other approaches to designing products, it’s just another way to answer questions. When you stumble upon a question during the design process, how do you answer them? In which order? From what prospective? UCD gives you a pretty detailed roadmap to follow.

The main idea of User-Centered Design is to focus on user needs, goals and limitations and take them into consideration through the whole design process. Listening to users in interviews, analysing their needs and tasks they need to perform, you let users guide our product decisions.

UCD as approach to designing products was first defined by Donald Norman in 1986. Since than it has become a dominant paradigm in products, interfaces and applications design. It’s fundamental principles are as follows:

  • early focus on users tasks and their environment;
  • empirical measurement testing with real users;
  • iterative design (design, test, refine… until it’s right).

“Design is directed toward human beings. To design is to solve human problems by identifying them and executing the best solution.” — Ivan Chermayeff, Yale Graduate, founder of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, New York-based branding and graphic design firm that designed logos for NBC, Xerox, National Geographic and many others.

Based on these principles, the design process itself can be divided into four phases: analysis, design, evaluation and implementation. Analysis is all about field studies. After creating user profiles and user scenarios, you need to get out of the building and conduct those user interviews. Design phase — with all the material accumulated, you start brainstorming design concepts, develop screen flows and navigation, create low-fidelity prototypes. Time for evaluation. At different stages of product development, user testing can be done in different ways: “design walkthroughs”, users can be asked to step through their tasks following a sequence of screen sketches or paper prototypes or carry out more complicated user scenarios with a working prototype. The important thing here is to start usability testing as soon as possible. You can go through this design loop for a couple of times tracking task completion rates are key factors based on which the changes to the product’s design will be made. On the implementation stage it’s still important to use surveys to get users feedback and conduct field studies about the actual use.

In summation, keeping a user at the heart of UCD process helps you to understand users better and to ensure your product is usable and effective (meaning it helps users to achieve their goals in the most effective way). This way UCD is truly the way to design good products. But what if good is not good enough? What about designing great products? Well, the same Donald Norman has criticized the dominance UCD and proposed as an alternative the Activity Centered Design (ACD). For example, Jared M. Spool defines the following design styles: unintended design, self design, genius design, activity-focused and user-focused design. Then many other design approaches appeared including including Data-Driven Design, Goal-Driven Design, Systems Design, and others. In the table below you’ll find a quick comparison of various approaches to product design.

With all the strength and opportunities UCD has to offer, we can see that it’s not perfect. Despite the fact that some designers treat is at alfa and omega for product design, it still has it’s drawbacks. First of all, research stage is usually expensive, time consuming and not always reliable. You have to be ready for this. Due to the costs involved, UCD might be hard to scale. Secondly, focus on the users that is very beneficial in many cases may open up some weak points as well:

  • users are the moving target;there needs, wants and goals are constantly changing;
  • users don’t always know what they want;
  • improvements for one group of users is sometimes detrimental for another;
  • focusing on the users business realities and business goals might get left out;
  • the last but not least is the questions: are you focusing on the right users?

Finally, it’s important to understand that with UCD users do drive and guide our design decisions, although the final decision as well as design itself is still carried out by a designer. So, users (and their data) are be there to inform designers, not substitute for them. The purpose of UCD is through a number of iterations to enlighten, confirm or refute designer’s hypothesis.

Although UCD does have its drawbacks, it’s still the most dominant approach to product design across many industries. Speaking of the mobile app market, it’s widely adopted by the huge market leaders like Evernote, as well as by the smaller teams like Intellectsoft who, for example, followed UCD process to design Colourboost app.

After all, we must understand that some design approaches work better for different problems than for others. The trick is to determine what approach works best for the project you’re working on…or even for just a part of the project.