User-Centered App Design: User Involvement Through the Design Process

November 7, 2014

Test early, test often.” John D. McGrecor

Do you remember the hierarchy of needs proposed by Abraham Maslow? Just like in humans, mobile application designs go through different stages of growth too. These stages of growth are the user experience hierarchy of needs proposed by Stephen Anderson. The most basic needs start at the bottom of the pyramid and it is very difficult or even impossible to meet the higher needs without satisfying the basic. The basic need in the user experience pyramid is functionality. The highest need is meaningfulness. The chasm between usable and convenient is very hard to cross. To make your application convenient to use – that works “just like the user thinks” – you need to know exactly all user’s expectations and desires. In other words, you need User-Centered Design (UCD).

A basic question in the development process of a mobile application is how to find out what users really need. However, the elicitation of this kind of information from users is usually a challenging issue. Frequently, users have difficulties in articulating their needs. For this reason it is important to practice an interactive involvement of end-users during the whole process of app development and design – from concepting to finalizing.

Let’s look how does the scenario of UCD process look like:

It is important to make user testing on the early stages of application development. If we find out some problems during testing our application in the hybrid focus group or field test (we will come back to these testing methods later), sometimes it is necessary to repeat user testing to make sure these problems are resolved. Occasionally, it makes sense to organize second hybrid focus group, if during first one you discuss significant changes in the concept of your application and then decide to implement them. Similarly you may repeat field testing as much as it is needed to be sure that users are completely satisfied with the application design.

On the early stages of the developing process, UCD practices help us to understand:

  1. What users want to do.

  2. How they want to do it.

  3. What we can do to help.

  4. How we can do that.

Before applying any kind of user testing, mobile application development company should remember the golden rules of user involvement through the design process:

  1. Know your audience. UCD relies on user involvement throughout the design process, leading to a solution that users will find useful and want to use. To achieve that, you first need to have a clear understanding of your target audience.

  2. Know what you want to know. Make a homework – do a research, draw sketches, make some drafts of your app design concepts, determine what you need to clarify.

  3. Dig into experiences. Do not request from the testing group of users out-of-the-box solutions. Your task is to scrupulously learn their experiences.

  4. Co-create the deliverables. Try not to disturb or confuse the group of users, just help them when it is needed.

  5. Observe the facts. Be critical and open-minded. It is essential to see the whole picture, not only what you want to see.

Hybrid Focus Group

Hybrid focus group is focused on asking questions and co-creation. What does application development company need to do:

  • Gather 6-8 participants

  • Organize alternate discussion and activities

  • Let people evaluate individually

  • Discuss finding as a group

  • Learn participants’ deliverables, make conclusions

  • Discuss results with the client or stakeholders

Field Test

Field test is focused on observing behavior and seeing users in contexts. What does application development company need to do:

  • Know target audience (5 representative participants will be enough to find 80% of design problems)

  • Know what it is needed to test

  • Prepare a test script to guide the tests

  • Let participants perform tasks, according to the test scripts

  • Observe where they are happy and when they get stuck somewhere

  • Make conclusions, resolve problems and finalize design


Steve Jobs said  “You‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.” The importance of an early and on-going focus on end-users in the mobile application development and design process is widely accepted. Usability problems continue to offer a challenge to the app developers. That is why we see an increasing emphasis on the role of users in design. The aim is to gain knowledge about users’ experiences and the context of use of mobile applications so as to achieve more effective designs.