Towards User Centered Design in 5 Steps


Sabina Idler

January 31, 2012

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It’s nothing new anymore and I bet by now everyone has at some point heard about it: User Centered Design (UCD). UCD is a way of designing with a constant focus on the user. Designers are no longer free to express themselves in their work for any means, but they are forced to focus on what the user will like. OK, so you all understand the idea behind user centered design. But is it really that simple?Let me introduce you to 6 steps that will lead you towards UCD on a safe path:

Step 1 – Define your target group

I admit, this first step is obvious. But hey, who says we may not start off with baby steps? So let’s start with defining our target group. Find out who you are going to sell stuff to. How old are they? Are they men or women? Are they well educated or not? Are they long term customers or completely unfamiliar with your product? If your target group turns out to be anything but homogeneous, you might want to consider to categorize them. So for example you target mostly men, but they can be divided into experts and laymen.

Step 2 – Create Personas

Now this step is already a little bigger and requires either some practice or at least a good theoretical base. Personas help us to grasp our target group. See, we might have already defined typical users to be middle aged men with either a lot or little prior experience. But that is not enough to keep us on our path towards UCD.

If we really want to design for our prospective users, we need to get to know them ‘in person’. This might sound silly, at least to me it did when I first learned about personas, but trust me, it’s worth giving a try. Designing for 32 year old Pete, who can’t wait for the the product release with promising new features, requires a completely different approach than designing for 39 year old John, who would rather not get involved with technical staff but is required to by his job. Breathing life into a selection of characteristic users will make it so much easier for you to design for them. If you want, compare it with designing for any average middle aged man and designing for your friend, whom you know inside out. I bet it’s much easier to design for your friend, right?

Try to define your personas as detailed as possible but only include information that is relevant as a user. For example, feel free to mention if your persona likes sports, if physical activity is somehow relevant to your product. You can also use more indirect characteristics, like traveling. A love for foreign countries can stand for openness and an interest in new things.

Step 3 – Come up with user scenarios

Great, now that you have ‘met’ the people you are going to design for, it’s time to get some hands on user scenarios down on paper. User scenarios describe situations in which your users will actually use your product. These scenarios can be brief or very detailed, like a short story. They help you put yourself into the perspective of your users and truly understand what their goals are and how they use your product to achieve these goals. Besides, user scenarios pay attention to your users foreknowledge, their expectations, abilities, and limitations, but also environmental aspects that will help you to detect possible difficulties your users might encounter. With a series of thought through user scenarios, you made a big step into the right direction. And make sure you include all your personas as they probably all have their own way to approach your product.

Step 4 – Create use cases

While user scenarios describe the whole situation in which users interact with your product, use cases describe more specific actions. Usually a use case can be split into single tasks that a user needs to complete in order to achieve a defined goal. These tasks can be as specific as (1) clicking a menu button, (2) selecting one of the pull-down menu items, and (3) clicking on the selected item. You see, we start big and then we get step by step closer to the core.

Step 5 – Create prototypes & test with prospective users

You are about to take your last but not less important step towards UCD. According to everything you have found out so far, you should go ahead and create your first prototype. This first prototype does not necessarily be of high fidelity, but make sure you can justify every detail that you do include with what you know about your users. Remember that only now you start your first cycle of an iterative design process. Meaning based on the hypothetical knowledge about your users, you come up with a design. However, there is still a chance you got it wrong, so you do need to test what actual users think of your design. After a first round of feedback, you know if you really are on the right path. Then add more details and test again. Implement feedback and test again.


User Centered Design is great, but there is more to it that just including your prospective users in user tests. UCD starts long before you build your first prototype, even before you should think about the design. Defining and getting to know your users is an essential start of UCD. Being familiar with your users’ goals and how they will go about these goals is very important before you start your design. Test your design repetitively and with real users to verify your concepts.

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