User Centred Design

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Easy to use apps and websites don't just happen. Creating a usable system requires a focus on the product's users at all stages of the design and development project.

... the cost-benefit ratio for usability is $1:$10-$100. Once a system is in development, correcting a problem costs 10 times as much as fixing the same problem in design. If the system has been released, it costs 100 times as much relative to fixing in design.

Usability Professionals Association,
The ROI of Usability

A Better Alternative to Traditional Software Design Processes

User Centred Design (UCD) puts the users first. Although it seems counter intuitive when observed from an objective viewpoint, most software design processes do the opposite. For instance it is typical for an organisation to follow a process such as this:

  1. Define what the organisation wants (from an internal perspective);
  2. Create technical requirements from that list of desires;
  3. Build the product;
  4. Deploy the product;
  5. Ask the users how the product is received.

UCD reverses the design process. Real users of the website are engaged in planning, analysis, and testing scenarios from the very beginning of the project. In fact most of the user centred design process takes place before a single line of code is written or functional specifications for a project are finalised. Everything is quantitatively measured, and no design or programming decisions are made without first qualifying that each decision will improve the ability for users to complete tasks on the website.

More Than "Usability"

UCD has a broader scope than purely "usability"; it considers all aspects of a technology product early on, and continually throughout the planning, conceptualisation, design and development process. We believe that the definition of the key components of a digital strategy should be driven by users (not necessarily by the project owners), so the concept of UCD permeates all levels of our project delivery methodology - even during the pre-planning stages before active "design" has begun.

User Centred Design Increases Returns

In the same way that a well informed, well trained, customer oriented sales manager sells more products, a truly user focussed website generates real and measurable performance gains.

Consider the following advantages of user centred design:

  • There is a high return on savings and product usability. A typical rule is that $1 spent on usability saves $10 on fixing the problem during development, or $100 on fixing the problem after the application is deployed
  • Overall development costs are reduced
  • Overall development time is saved
  • Maintenance and support costs are reduced
  • Re-design costs are minimised or removed
  • Revenue or automated customer communications are increased through the user's ability to more successfully complete tasks
  • Product sales are increased when impediments such as complex forms and complicated ordering processes are removed
  • Customers become happier, visit more often, and are more satisfied with their transactions with an organisation through the use of a website
  • User errors are reduced

The Real Value of Usability

Consider some examples to see just how much difference the UCD process can make to your business:

The average user interface has some 40 flaws. Correcting the easiest 20 of these yields an average improvement in usability of 50%. The big win, however, occurs when usability is factored in from the beginning. This can yield efficiency improvements of over 700%.
You can increase sales on your site as much as 225% by providing sufficient product information to your customers at the right time.
Sun Microsystems has shown how spending about $20,000 could yield a savings of $152 million dollars. Each and every dollar invested could return $7,500 in savings.
Savings from earlier vs. later changes: Changes cost less when made earlier in the development life cycle. Twenty changes in a project, at 15 hours per change and a (minimal) hourly rate of $125, would cost $30,000. Reducing this to 4 hours per change would reduce the cost to $10,000. Savings = $20,000.

Quotes from Usability Professionals' Association website at

A Typical UCD Procedure

There are a number of different options and exercises involved in user centred design. These exercises can be applied in different ways for different projects. The following suggested procedure is typical of those that have been successfully applied in small to medium size web projects.

  1. Run a planning workshop with key project stakeholders to define a business wish list, user map, and content map
  2. Run an enquiry analysis to establish the primary points of contact with customers and the primary needs of those customers
  3. Develop user personas to articulate the behaviours of your key users
  4. Define the key tasks users will perform when visiting the website
  5. Use the output of the planning workshop, enquiry analysis, and consider key tasks to create a draft taxonomy (in simple terms, a taxonomy is a "site map")
  6. Break the taxonomy down into its individual pages and run card sorting sessions to understand how users would categorise site content
  7. Review the draft taxonomy based on card sorting results
  8. Test the taxonomy in a user focus group against the defined key tasks
  9. Create blueprints for key parts of the site
  10. Extend the blueprints into a system prototype
  11. Test the prototype with real users against the defined activity scenarios and updated it based on feedback
  12. Design the look and feel of the site, beginning with the home page and inner page template
  13. Apply the graphic design to the prototype to create a full draft of the system interface
  14. As the project continues, the design is refined to incorporate a full website style sheet, and design is iteratively applied to each area of the site, including careful attention paid to interface design for key forms
  15. Test the prototype (again) with real users and update it again
  16. Start building the website or app

The procedure varies from project to project. In some cases user and market research activities may be undertaken before system planning exercises begin, surveys may be conducted, design focus groups organised, or research on "off the shelf" technologies performed.

If the timeframe for the project allows it, it is a good idea to add more user testing steps - e.g. one round of testing before the design is applied to the system prototype, and another round once the website has been constructed, before it is launched.

The Components of User Centred Design

User Centred Design is an over arching strategy, so it's not possible to sum it up in a simple list of tasks. Some of the more common components of a UCD-based project are listed below.

Example Projects

How to Get Started

Contact us to get your design project underway.