Introduction to user-centred design, its benefits to your business and its role in product or service development
User-centre design contributes to the successful development of products, services and websites. It is a process that focuses on user research, engagement and feedback. It can generate many benefits to businesses, including stronger sales, reduced risks and cost-efficiencies.
This guide explains the advantages of user-centred design. It describes concepts and methods to help you improve the design of your products or services. It also tells you how you can incorporate the user-centred design process into your business practice and recognise the advantages of inclusive design.
Advantages of user-centred design
User-centred design improves the customer experience associated with a website, a product or a service.
Benefits of user-centred design
User-centred design could bring many advantages to your business. For example, it could:
- increase your sales - customers are more likely to buy a product or service that meets their needs
- boost competitiveness - customers are less likely to choose other business' products if your product meets their needs more effectively
- build positive user experiences - increase loyalty and a good reputation for your business or brand
- help you gain insight - this, in turn, could lead to innovative new products or services
- save your business time and money - by testing things with end-users when it is still cost effective to make changes
By involving the customers in the design process, user-centred design could also:
- help you design more effective and safer products
- give your customers a sense of ownership in your product or service
- remove the need to change the design late in the process, avoiding high costs and time delays
It's important to adopt a user-centred approach at the earliest opportunity. This gives everyone who needs to be involved - such as research, engineering or marketing teams - a clear picture of how you will call on their expertise to benefit the project. A good strategy will reduce the risk of conflicting initiatives, wasting your business' time and money.
Undertake any design project with a clear picture of your new product or service's end-user in mind. Often, you will have a much better chance of business success if you actively involve your end-users in the design process. Find out more about the user-centred design process.
See also how to research and develop ideas, new products and services.
User-centred design process
How to engage with end-users as part of the design process, and how to use the insights you learn from this process
User-centred design is based on the concept that the best-designed products or services come from understanding the needs of the people who will use them. Most products or services undergo market testing and user research, but this often comes too late in the new product development process when significant changes might not be possible.
Ideally, you should actively engage with potential end-users in the early stages of developing a product or service. This could help guide your product and service development.
Step 1: Identify your users
First, you need to identify who you mean by 'user'. Are they members of the public who might find your product on a supermarket shelf and use it in their home? Or are they trade customers who you want to establish a service contract with?
Each user will have different perspectives and needs. You may find that one or more types of customers are relevant users of your product or service, and the challenge there is to manage a design project that understands them all.
Step 2: Engage with consumers
You should engage with your potential users directly, rather than through findings from market research or from your own experiences. For example, you could ask them to:
- keep video diaries while they use your product or service
- take part in workshops where they analyse their experience of your business and your products
User-centred design should be separate from market research. Market research focuses mainly on understanding the market in general terms, for example, by:
- identifying triggers to buy or use a product or service
- finding acceptable price points
Find out more about market research and market reports.
Step 3: Observe and analyse users
It's important to immerse yourself in your users' context - the circumstances and ways people are likely to use your product. This immersion exposes unexpressed needs that might be missed without the full context. For example, spend time with users as they perform relevant tasks at home or work. While they try out your product, you should observe and note where they use things easily and where they have trouble. Take note of what they say - but keep in mind that it is often the things they don't say which can give the greatest insights.
Analysing this type of observational research will help you to identify any important themes and take them forward. You may want to capture your findings visually with a camera or video recorder, so that you can share with the design team.
Step 4: Evaluate prototypes
As your design ideas and concepts develop, you should continue to gather input from end-users. Where possible, show them models of potential solutions that you have created based on their ideas and seek feedback.
Most products and services have different types of users, so try to gather input from the widest range of potential customers possible. This will allow you to get the most out of your user research. Carrying out repeat observations or evaluations with the same type of user will limit any findings.
Find more top tips for user-centred design.
Advantages of inclusive design
Inclusive design involves developing products, services or environments so as many people as possible can access and use them.
User-centred design techniques are an essential part of inclusive design. They make it possible to:
- understand the reality of people's lives
- evaluate products and services as you develop them
- ensure products or services are genuinely inclusive
The importance of inclusive design
Inclusive design is important for social equality reasons, but it also makes good business sense. For example, by the year 2020 approximately half the adults in the UK will be aged 50 or over.
With increasing age, most people experience multiple minor impairments in:
An inclusive approach to design can help you seize important opportunities for business growth through new products and services that are accessible to all segments of the market.
Design against exclusion
An important consideration in inclusive design is to understand and quantify how your design choices may deter or eliminate potential users.
This design exclusion can take several forms. For example, your choice of design could be unintentionally excluding:
- less mobile or dextrous users - for example, the elderly and disabled
- less affluent users
- users with less technological know-how
- users from different cultures
The techniques of inclusive design and user-centred design are very similar. But instead of talking and researching with typical product or service users, inclusive design seeks out extreme users - the sorts of people who will demand the most from a product or service. For example, a bathroom fittings manufacturer sought out ballet dancers who needed precise bathroom lighting for performance hair and makeup. They chose to do this because these people represented an untapped market and would show that if they could easily use a range of products, then people with less specialised requirements could too.
Ergonomics is the science of designing spaces or equipment to fit the person using them. For advice on how ergonomists can help you identify and eliminate design exclusion and cater to new markets, see the importance of ergonomics.
The importance of ergonomics
Ergonomics is about ensuring a good fit between people and the things they interact with. This could include the objects they use or the environments they live in. You should consider ergonomics in the design of every product, system or environment.
You should focus on ergonomics early in the design process. Ignoring ergonomics can lead to designs that are likely to fail commercially - as they don't fit the needs of the user.
Importance of ergonomics
Ergonomics is an important part of research in the product development process. Its purpose is to increase the safety, comfort and performance of a product or an environment, such as an office.
Ergonomics uses anthropometrical data to determine the optimum size, shape and form of a product, and make it easier for people to use.
Ergonomists can help you to identify which user characteristics you should take into account during your design process. This is important when you consider how much individuals vary in terms of:
- body size
- body shape
- sensory sensitivity
- mental ability
When you apply ergonomic methods early in the design process, they can often identify opportunities for innovation. Find out more about the user-centred design process.
Categories of ergonomics
There are three broad areas of ergonomics:
Physical ergonomics looks at how human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics relate to physical activity. This includes:
- working postures
- manual handling
- repetitive movements
- musculoskeletal disorders
- workplace layout and environment
Psychological ergonomics studies mental processes (eg perception, cognition, memory, reasoning and emotion) and how people interact with products, systems and environments. This includes:
- mental workload
- human-computer interaction
- human reliability
- cultural differences
Organisational ergonomics is about optimising the organisational structures, policies and processes of socio-technical systems. This includes:
- work design
- staff resource management
- working time patterns
- co-operative work
- quality management
- organisational culture
To ensure that you keep your end users' needs in focus at all times, you should make ergonomists an integral part of your design development team.
User-centred web design
All businesses can benefit from an accessible and easy-to-use website. Online customers who find your website intuitive are much more likely to purchase from you and revisit your website in the future.
When planning your website, you should think about how your users will want to interact with your site. Attractive and accessible design, ease of navigation, well-written content, clear 'call to action' and well-designed e-commerce functionality will all make a difference to how effective the site is.
User-centred design for websites
The process for developing a user-centred website will typically include the following steps:
- Understand your business objectives and how this will affect your website - eg are there certain requirements that will have an impact on the usability of your website?
- Model different user journeys based on your customer insight and segmentation - you can use this to help define your site map and information architecture.
- Build 'wireframe' models of the website and other mock-ups - you can use these to test the 'look and feel' of the website prior to full development.
- Think about 'persuasive design' and how your website will support the customer to achieve certain goals on your website - eg a purchase or online registration.
- Design, build and test - this should be an iterative process that moves towards more functional prototypes and the final 'live' website. At this stage, you should aim to use expert evaluation alongside further user testing to ensure your understanding of the user all the way up to launch.
After launch, you should continue to collect user feedback as an on-going process. You can use this to benchmark performance and refer to when making future changes to the site. You can also assess the site's effectiveness after launch using web analytics tools to show how users are navigating the site.
If you have limited resources, you may want to consider using a well-designed template website rather than developing from scratch.
Making sure that a business website is accessible to people with disabilities is not only good design practice. It is also a legal responsibility and a vital consideration in user-centred design. See more on best practice in web design.
Top tips for user-centred design
Best practice on following user-centred design principles in your business, and developing great products and services for your users
User-centred design is a methodology that puts the user at the centre of all design decisions. You can apply the principles of user-centred design in web design, as well as new products or service development.
The three main principles of user-centred design are to:
- focus on user needs, goals and limitations (throughout the design process)
- measure and test developed designs with real users
- keep working on it until the product or service meets all of the needs of its users
It's important to find the right target users of your planned product or service to make sure you can carry out meaningful user-focused research. You should engage with these end-users early on and continually throughout your design process.
You should also:
- make user-centred design a shared priority for the whole design team
- integrate any research findings into the ongoing design work
- schedule time for regular feedback to the whole team
- utilise user stories, videos, photographs, checklists and catchphrases to make research findings vivid and enduring
Give users space to express themselves
Try to keep your user research sessions as intimate as possible. Having several members of your team present is likely to inhibit participants. Protect your participants' confidentiality and reassure them you are evaluating the design problems and not them personally.
If several people from your team need to carry out the research, it may be better for them to do it individually and share their findings afterwards.
Prototype, evaluate, reiterate
You should create prototypes, sketches or functional production models of your ideas, and gather user feedback on these as early as possible in the design process.
Depending on the nature of your project and the stage it's at, suitable prototypes can include:
- written scenarios or sketches outlining functionality
- computer-based simulations of functionality
- fully working models that represent the full functionality
A viable prototype enables end-users to give feedback on how well the product or service meets their needs, and on its usability. You can gain fresh perspectives by also testing prototypes on new users who have had no previous involvement with your project.
Find out more about the user-centred design process.