Defining User-Centred Design

User-centred design, user-centred approach, user-driven development, user-centric organisation, are all trying to describe the same phenomenon. An entity which performs design for a product,  with high-priority consideration and constant input of the person who will use it. Furthermore, we see everyday more and more organisations converting themselves to being user-centric. So the question appears, what is user-centred design and how does it defer from other approaches on design.

User-centred design

In the en​​cyclopedia of  Human-Computer Interaction, Abras et al. state:

“‘User-centered design’ (UCD) is a broad term to describe design processes in which end-users influence how a design takes shape. It is both a broad philosophy and variety of methods”

Essentially, user-centric design puts a name to the primal need that appears when starting to develop a product: what do the people who are going to use the product want? The differentiating characteristic of the user-centred process —over some other design process e.g. process-centred design— is the emphasis on including the user from early stages, while continuing to iterate over their needs throughout the whole process. Nonetheless, as with every movement, UCD evolved to represent a more humanistic approach to product design; by transferring the focus from process and business objectives to user needs.

User-centric design as a philosophy

Donald A. Norman pioneered in shaping the UCD to a set of axioms, all of which focus on one singularity; maximising usability. Developing a product with that constrain —maximisation of usability— refers some involvement with the following principles, that interestingly apply to both physical and digital products.

  • Visibility: The principle that the more visible an element is, the more likely users will know about them and how to use them. 
  • Feedback: The principle of making it clear to the user what action has been taken and what has been accomplished.
  • Constrains: Limiting the range of interaction possibilities for the user to simplify the interface and guide the user to the appropriate next action.
  • Mapping: Having a clear relationship between controls and the effect they have on the world.
  • Consistency:  Having similar operations and similar elements for achieving similar tasks.
  • Affordance: An attribute of an object that allows people to know how to use it.

Following the path carved by usability optimisation, implies a lean towards user empathy that a lot of the time goes against individual processes. This mentality reveals the fundamental humaine nature of user-centric design. 

User-centric designs vs intuition

Intuitive products tend to have high usability, although the opposite is not always true; there are a couple of cases when initially non-intuitive products are designed in a way to maximise usability. A generic guideline of “design intuitive products” is not enough to guide a product. 

In spite of the fact that user-centred design calls for creation of usable products, that could very well be intuitive products, it calls for the removal of the designer’s intuition. A product designed to be intuitive is done by understanding the user’s intuition; which most of the time is different from the designer’s. Different methodologies have been proposed to help identify what can be intuitive for the user. Usability tests, first-click testing, focus-groups, task analysis, are some examples of those methodologies. 

Criticism 

Lately more and more organisations are turning to be user-centred. However, user-centric design lacks a lot of  business needs that might arise. A product designed just with the user-centric process doesn’t include the incentive of making money; as something might as well be extremely usable but to have almost zero business perspective. At the same time, usability is not what eludes the customers to start using a product, it is partly what keeps them. As a last note, the user-centric approach is not an equivalent of market research — it is a way of maximising usability for a product that is already conceived and validated.

A toy grabber with a pikachu inside
A toy grabber — very profitable, little usable. Image courtesy Melvina Mak 

Conclusion

User-centred design can be a very valuable process for creating products that have high usability. At the same time, it lacks business orientation. Maximisation of usability is one of the core values of user-centric design, whereas designs involve the user of a product throughout the design decisions.

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