User-Centered Design: What is it and why is it important?
As businesses increasingly move to digital, a new, functional approach to design is becoming necessary.
The history of customer-focused digital design has for many years been mostly associated with the field of aesthetics and marketing
When considering the design of a website, for example, the first thing that usually comes to mind are the types of colors, fonts, and other clear visual components that will create the aesthetic identity of the site, and by extension, the brand it represents.
Since the first advertisements of the early 20th century, design of customer-facing marketing material has usually been considered in this visual, emotive sense.
But design is a lot more than that – it doesn’t just refer to the way products look – but how they work too.
And as websites and apps move away from being first and foremost a medium for marketing material and making sales, and into the realm of actual tools that fulfil different purposes for users – the importance of reconceptualizing design has become more important.
This is the essence of User-Centered Design (UCD). UCD is an iterative technique that aims to take the process of designing a digital product, and to imbue it with the needs, requirements, and projected usage typologies of users.
Using UCD to create a website or app involves some clearly-defined practices and methodologies.
Let’s take a look at its two key components:
In much the same way as developers will use iterative approaches such as the SCRUM method to constantly develop, test, evaluate and refine the software they develop, a UCD approach will see User Experience (UX), User Interface (UI) designers leveraging iterative phases to refine their designs, while working with developers to ensure they are realizable in practice.
The process usually works using both investigative (user research and surveys) and generative (design and testing) approaches, which tend to be split into four phases:
- Understanding context of use
- Understanding user needs and requirements
- Designing solutions or approaches
- Revaluating according to A and B
Each iteration of these phases will ideally produce more refined products that better address user needs.
UCD is not a simple process. The term ‘user’ does not refer to a homogenous, static or unidimensional being, but a vast collective of different individuals with all kinds of different experiences and perspectives.
It is very easy to forget this in a design process, as the human brain is not particularly skilled in being able to truly envision the perspectives of thousands or millions of other individuals.
For this reason, a UCD process needs to take the investigative side of its approach very seriously. The more research and understanding of the differences and peculiarities of potential users, the more of a rich frame of reference a design team will have when refining the generative aspects of their design process.
Companies such as Google or Facebook understand this in a very deep way – and due to their enormous resources, are able to mobilize a large army of psychologists, sociologists, behavioral specialists and many more in order to truly understand the complexities of their users.
The end results are products that not only respond to users’ needs and requirements, but in many cases pre-empt them.
Of course, most companies do not have the resources available to them that Facebook, Google or Apple might have.
But by taking a more involved approach to understanding users – and developing designs that respond to and reflect their needs and desires – any company seeking to use digital technologies for serving their customers stands to benefit.