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User-centered design

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Title: User-centered design  
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Subject: Usability goals, Design, Contextual design, Empathic design, Persona (user experience)
Collection: Design, Human–computer Interaction, Technical Communication, Usability
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User-centered design

User-centred design (UCD) is a framework of processes (not restricted to interfaces or technologies) in which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product, service or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process. User-centred design can be characterized as a multi-stage problem solving process that not only requires designers to analyse and foresee how users are likely to use a product, but also to test the validity of their assumptions with regard to user behavior in real world tests with actual users at each stage of the process from requirements, concepts, pre-production models, mid production and post production creating a circle of proof back to and confirming or modifying the original requirements. Such testing is necessary as it is often very difficult for the designers of a product to understand intuitively what a first-time user of their design experiences, and what each user's learning curve may look like.

The chief difference from other product design philosophies is that user-centered design tries to optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the product.


  • UCD models and approaches 1
  • Purpose 2
  • Elements 3
    • Visibility 3.1
    • Accessibility 3.2
    • Legibility 3.3
    • Language 3.4
  • Rhetorical situation 4
    • Audience 4.1
    • Purpose 4.2
    • Context 4.3
  • Analysis tools used in user-centered design 5
    • Persona 5.1
    • Scenario 5.2
    • Use case 5.3
  • User-centred design, needs and emotions 6
  • User-centred design in product lifecycle management systems 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • Organisations 11

UCD models and approaches

For example, the user-centered design process can help software designers to fulfill the goal of a product engineered for their users. User requirements are considered right from the beginning and included into the whole product cycle. These requirements are noted and refined through investigative methods including: ethnographic study, contextual inquiry, prototype testing, usability testing and other methods. Generative methods may also be used including: card sorting, affinity diagramming and participatory design sessions. In addition, user requirements can be inferred by careful analysis of usable products similar to the product being designed.

  • Cooperative design: involving designers and users on an equal footing. This is the Scandinavian tradition of design of IT artifacts and it has been evolving since 1970.[1]
  • Participatory design (PD), a North American term for the same concept, inspired by Cooperative Design, focusing on the participation of users. Since 1990, there has been a bi-annual Participatory Design Conference.[2]
  • Contextual design, “customer-centered design” in the actual context, including some ideas from Participatory design[3]

All these approaches follow the ISO standard Human-centred design for interactive systems (ISO 9241-210, 2010).

The ISO standard describes 6 key principles that will ensure a design is user centered:

  1. The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  2. Users are involved throughout design and development.
  3. The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation.
  4. The process is iterative.
  5. The design addresses the whole user experience.
  6. The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.


UCD answers questions about users and their tasks and goals, then uses the findings to make decisions about development and design. UCD of a web site, for instance, seeks to answer the following questions:

  • Who are the users of the document?
  • What are the users’ tasks and goals?
  • What are the users’ experience levels with the document, and documents like it?
  • What functions do the users need from the document?
  • What information might the users need, and in what form do they need it?
  • How do users think the document should work?
  • What are the extreme environments?
  • Is the user multitasking?
  • Does the interface utilize different inputs modes such as touching, spoken, gestures, or orientation?


As examples of UCD viewpoints, the essential elements of UCD of a web site are considerations of visibility, accessibility, legibility and language.


Visibility helps the user construct a mental model of the document. Models help the user predict the effect(s) of their actions while using the document. Important elements (such as those that aid navigation) should be emphatic. Users should be able to tell from a glance what they can and cannot do with the document.


Users should be able to find information quickly and easily throughout the document, regardless of its length. Users should be offered various ways to find information (such as navigational elements, search functions, hierarchy. The ability to skim the document allows users to find their piece of information by scanning rather than reading. Bold and italic words are often used.


Text should be easy to read: Through analysis of the rhetorical situation, the designer should be able to determine a useful font style. Ornamental fonts and text in all capital letters are hard to read, but italics and bolding can be helpful when used correctly. Large or small body text is also hard to read. (Screen size of 10-12 pixel sans serif and 12-16 pixel serif is recommended.) High figure-ground contrast between text and background increases legibility. Dark text against a light background is most legible.


Depending on the rhetorical situation, certain types of language are needed. Short sentences are helpful, as are well-written texts used in explanations and similar bulk-text situations. Unless the situation calls for it, jargon or technical terms should not be used. Many writers will choose to use active voice, verbs (instead of noun strings or nominals), and simple sentence structure.

Rhetorical situation

A user-centered design is focused around the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation shapes the design of an information medium. There are three elements to consider in a rhetorical situation: Audience, Purpose, and Context.


The audience is the people who will be using the document. The designer must consider their age, geographical location, ethnicity, gender, education, etc.


The purpose is what the document targets or what problem the document is trying to address.


The context is the circumstances surrounding the situation. The context often answers the question: What situation has prompted the need for this document? Context also includes any social or cultural issues that may surround the situation.

Analysis tools used in user-centered design

There are a number of tools that are used in the analysis of user-centred design, mainly: personas, scenarios, and essential use cases.


During the UCD process, a Persona representing the user may be created. It is a fictional character with all the characteristics of the user. Personas are created after the field research process, which typically consists of members of the primary stakeholder (user) group being observed on their behaviour, and additionally answering questionnaires or participating in interviews, or a mixture of both. After results are gathered from the field research, they are used to create personas of the primary stakeholder group.

Often, there may be several personas concerning the same group of individuals, since it is almost impossible to apply all the characteristics of the stakeholder group onto one character. The character depicts a "typical" stakeholder, not an "average" individual in the primary stakeholder group, and is referred to throughout the entire design process. There are also what's called a secondary persona, where the character is not a member of the primary stakeholder group and is not the main target of the design, but their needs should be met and problems solved if possible. They exist to help account for further possible problems and difficulties that may occur even though the primary stakeholder group is satisfied with their solution. There is also an anti-persona, which is the character which the design process is not made for. Personas usually include a name and picture, demographics, roles and responsibilities, goals and tasks, motivations and needs, environment and context, and a quote that can represent the character's personality.

Personas are useful in the sense that they create a common shared understanding of the user group for which the design process is built around. Also, they help to prioritize the design considerations by providing a context of what the user needs and what functions are simply nice to add and have. They can also provide a human face and existence to a diversified and scattered user group, and can also create some empathy and add emotions when referring to the users. However, since personas are a generalized perception of the primary stakeholder group from collected data, the characteristics may be too broad and typical, or too much of an "average joe". Sometimes, personas can have stereotypical properties also, which may hurt the entire design process. Overall, personas can be a useful tool to be used by designers to make informed design decisions around, opposed to referring to a set of data or a wide range of individuals.


A scenario created in the UCD process is a fictional story about the "daily life of" or a sequence of events with the primary stakeholder group as the main character. Typically, a persona that was created earlier is used as the main character of this story. The story should be specific of the events happening that relate to the problems of the primary stakeholder group, and normally the main research questions the design process is built upon. These may turn out to be a simple story about the daily life of an individual, but small details from the events should imply details about the users, and may include emotional or physical characteristics. There can be the "best-case scenario", where everything works out best for the main character, the "worst-case scenario", where the main character experiences everything going wrong around him or her, and an "average-case scenario", which is the typical life of the individual, where nothing really special or really depressing occurs, and the day just moves on.

Scenarios create a social context in which the personas exist, and also create an actual physical world, instead of imagining a character with internal characteristics from gathered data and nothing else; there is more action involved in the persona's existence. A scenario is also more easily understood by people, since it is in the form of a story, and is easier to follow. Yet, like the personas, these scenarios are assumptions made by the researcher and designer, and is also created from a set of organized data. Some even say such scenarios are unrealistic to real life occurrences. Also, it is difficult to explain and inform low level tasks that occur, like the thought process of the persona before acting.

Use case

In short, a use case describes the interaction between an individual and the rest of the world. Each use case describes an event that may occur for a short period of time in real life, but may consist of intricate details and interactions between the actor and the world. It is represented as a series of simple steps for the character to achieve his or her goal, in the form of a cause-and effect scheme. Use cases are normally written in the form of a chart with two columns: first column labelled actor, second column labelled world, and the actions performed by each side written in order in the respective columns. The following is an example of a use case for performing a song on a guitar in front of an audience.

Actor World
choose music to play
pick up guitar
display sheet music
perform each note on sheet music using guitar
convey note to audience using sound
audience provides feedback to performer
assess performance and adjust as needed based on audience feedback.
complete song with required adjustments
audience applause

The interaction between actor and the world is an act that can be seen in everyday life, and we take them as granted and don't think too much about the small detail that needs to happen in order for an act like performing a piece of music to exist. It is similar to the fact that when speaking our mother tongue, we don't think too much about grammar and how to phrase words; they just come out since we are so used to saying them. The actions between an actor and the world, notably, the primary stakeholder (user) and the world in this case, should be thought about in detail, and hence use cases are created to understand how these tiny interactions occur.

An essential use case is a special kind of use case, also called an "abstract use case." Essential use cases describe the essence of the problem, and deals with the nature of the problem itself. While writing use cases, no assumptions about unrelated details should be made. In additions, the goals of the subject should be separated from the process and implementation to reach that particular goal. Below is an example of an essential use case with the same goal as the former example.

Actor World
choose sheet music to perform
gathers necessary resources
provides access to resources
performs piece sequentially
convey and interprets performance
provides feedback
completes performance

Use cases are useful because they help identify useful levels of design work. They allow the designers to see the actual low level processes that are involved for a certain problem, which makes the problem easier to handle, since certain minor steps and details the user makes are exposed. The designers' job should take into consideration of these small problems in order to arrive at a final solution that works. Another way to say this is that use cases breaks a complicated task into smaller bits, where these bits are useful units. Each bit completes a small task, which then builds up to the final bigger task. Like writing code on a computer, it is easier to write the basic smaller parts and make them work first, and then put them together to finish the larger more complicated code, instead to tackling the entire code from the very beginning.

The first solution is less risky because if something goes wrong with the code, it is easier to look for the problem in the smaller bits, since the segment with the problem will be the one that does not work, while in the latter solution, the programmer may have to look through the entire code to search for a single error, which proves time consuming. The same reasoning goes for writing use cases in UCD. Lastly, use cases convey useful and important tasks where the designer can see which one are of higher importance than others. Some drawbacks of writing use cases include the fact that each action, by the actor or the world, consist of little detail, and is simply a small action. This may possibly lead to further imagination and different interpretation of action from different designers.

Also, during the process, it is really easy to oversimplify a task, since a small task from a larger task may consist of even smaller tasks. Picking up a guitar may involve thinking of which guitar to pick up, which pick to use, and think about where the guitar is located first. These tasks may then be divided into smaller tasks, such as first thinking of what colour of guitar fits the place to perform the piece, and other related details. Tasks may be split further down into even tinier tasks, and it is up to the designer to determine what is a suitable place to stop splitting up the tasks. Tasks may not only be oversimplified, they may also be omitted in whole, thus the designer should be aware of all the detail and all the key steps that are involved in an event or action when writing use cases.

User-centred design, needs and emotions

The book "The Design of Everyday Things" (originally called "The Psychology of Everyday Things") was first published in 1986. In this book, Donald A. Norman describes the psychology behind what he deems 'good' and 'bad' design through examples and offers principles of 'good' design. He exalts the importance of design in our everyday lives, and the consequences of errors caused by bad designs.

In his book, Norman uses the term "user-centred design" to describe design based on the needs of the user, leaving aside what he considers secondary issues like aesthetics. User-centered design involves simplifying the structure of tasks, making things visible, getting the mapping right, exploiting the powers of constraint, and designing for error. Norman's overly reductive approach in this text was readdressed by him later in his own publication "Emotional Design."

Other books in a similar vein include "Designing Pleasurable Products"[4] by Patrick W. Jordan, in which the author suggests that different forms of pleasure should be included in a user-centered approach in addition to traditional definitions of usability.

User-centred design in product lifecycle management systems

Software applications (or often suites of applications) used in product lifecycle management (typically including CAD, CAM and CAx processes) can be typically characterized by the need for these solutions to serve the needs of a broad range of users, with each user having a particular job role and skill level. For example, a CAD digital mockup might be utilized by a novice analyst, design engineer of moderate skills, or a manufacturing planner of advanced skills.

See also


  1. ^ Greenbaum&Kyng (eds): Design At Work - Cooperative design of Computer Systems, Lawrence Erlbaum 1991
  2. ^ Schuler&Namioka: Participatory Design, Lawrence Erlbaum 1993 and chapter 11 in Helander’s Handbook of HCI, Elsevier 1997
  3. ^ Beyer&Holtzblatt, Contextual Design, Kaufmann 1998
  4. ^ Designing Pleasurable Products at Google Books

Further reading

  • ISO 13407:1999 Human-centred design processes for interactive systems
  • ISO 9241-210:2010 Ergonomics of human-system interaction -- Part 210: Human-centred design for interactive systems


  • The User Centred Design Society
  • User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA)
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