The Components of User Centred Design

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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 outlined below.

Planning Workshop

The DDSN planning workshop is based on a formal framework that we have developed over the years to address the unique issues involved in website planning. It is a critical step in the process of "information architecture" (IA). Initiating the IA process is the first thing you should do when designing a site.

Our process recognises that the knowledge of key stakeholders is crucial to the project's success, but that requirements drawn from direct interpretation of that knowledge in the very early stages of design are often misleading with respect to the real needs of end users. So the structure of the workshop is designed to draw on the expertise of the core stakeholders without the encumbrance of untested ideas about what the project should look like.

A series of mentored processes draw information from your organisation that is used as the basis for identifying both user and organisational needs for your project. The workshop may touch on technical and design issues too, where appropriate.

Definition of Target Audiences & Key Tasks

We will extract a definition of the key target audiences from the visitor map developed in the planning workshop. We'll create a clear and simple list of the proposed needs of each of the groups. These will be used to define activity scenarios for those users, which is a key input to the taxonomy and prototype testing exercises.

Enquiry Analysis

A review of the key questions and concerns being raised by customers via an organisation's various customer touchpoints. An enquiry analysis often involves components such as interviews with customer service staff, analysis of submissions through any existing contact or enquiry databases or forms, and a review of existing website logs.

Market & User Requirements Research

Investigation of market trends and demographics can be benefical to a project, especially in situations where target audiences come from a broad background and may be difficult to test directly.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is a simple exercise designed to identify how customers would organise your web site. This is a key step in making your site more user friendly and intuitive for those who actually use it. It also provides valuable insight into how your customers understand the terminology used on your website.

To perform a card sorting exercise we generally recruit five to eight people from each of your target audiences. All participants are paid for their time.

Each participant is asked to sort a pack of cards into categories. Each card represents a page of information on your website, which was defined after our content mapping exercises or as part of the draft taxonomy or site map. When complete, participants are encouraged to label each category using their own words. Participants undertake the exercise independently of one another.

All categories and their contents are recorded and studied for trends from which a revised site structure is proposed. Card sorting is the first step in avoiding the critical pitfall of designing your site structure along the lines of your company's organisational structure. Often the results differ widely from the way staff think about the information around them.

Taxonomy & Blueprint Development

The output of the planning workshop is coupled with research that has been collected (including enquiry analysis and/or competitive analysis) to define a taxonomy - or in simple terms, a "site map".

This exercise is sometimes performed within the organisation, but more usually by DDSN in co-operation with a nominated business analyst from the organisation. We actively review the site map together.

A blueprint consists of a series of diagrams - much like wireframes - that describe the relationships between pages within the system from a user interface perspective, taking user activity scenarios into account. Depending on the depth to which a taxonomy is defined, it may contain blueprints for individual pages in the site, to roughly define the interface layout.

A draft taxonomy can be created based upon the outputs of the planning workshop coupled with followup research such as an enquiry analysis or competitive analysis. The draft taxonomy is used to define cards for the card sorting exercise, and the taxonomy is formally reviewed once card sorting has taken place.

Taxonomy User Testing

A taxonomy review allows us to be sure the proposed new site structure works.

Using blueprints, five to eight participants from each target audience are taken through indicative tasks based around your initial activity scenarios created earlier.

This review is conducted as a group session and results are recorded, and studied to ensure the proposed site structure is correct.

Prototype Development

An interface prototype is a static model of your application that approximates the operation of the final product.

In some cases a prototype simply consists of a collection of image files with embedded hyperlinks to approximate navigation within a website. In other cases a prototype includes more advanced functions, e.g. more detailed representations of forms and response conditions within the application.

The development of an interface prototype for each project has two key advantages:

  1. The system interface can be tested with real users before programming actually begins; and
  2. Developing a prototype to go hand in hand with a written specification ensures clarity of communication between the system developer and the system owner. It ensures we all know how it's going to work before it is built!

Note that interface prototypes can be created either with or without the final website graphical "skin" applied. In the ideal world of user testing, prototypes should be tested both with and without the final graphical skin.

We usually create an interface prototype whether or not end user testing is actively applied, since it is an excellent way to ensure clear communication between the client, various stakeholders, and the design team about the way the site works.

Prototype Testing Workshops

Usability testing is a way of ensuring users can actually carry out the tasks they are intended to perform with the website interface, using the system efficiently, effectively, and with minimal frustration.

Five to eight participants from each target audience are asked to actually complete a list of tasks (defined earlier) using the prototype. A formal script is useful to keep the sessions consistent. Pre and post questionnaires gather general demographic information and post-test feelings, thoughts and impressions.

Testing of the interface prototype is separate to unit and functional testing of the system - it is an iterative design-oriented process that happens before the functional systems are constructed. The outcomes of usability testing on the interface prototype allow us to make design changes to the system (to improve usability) before any code is written.

Ideally usability testing is performed again on the final staging website, i.e. after the website has been constructed but before it is launched. This is a "check" of what has gone on previously. It provides a final validation of the completed design and website structure, and makes an allowance for last minute interface tweaks and improvements before launch.

Content Audit

An audit of the content that is needed and/or available for the project. The content map developed in the planning workshop is used as a basis for this audit.

Stakeholder Requirements Analysis

Input from project stakeholders who are not directly involved in the project's development should be sought at an early stage of the project. A good way to draw on their expertise and ideas without distorting the focus of the design stage is to generate a simple questionnaire. The content of the questionnaire often depends on the outcome of the planning workshop. There are other ways to gather input from stakeholders. A questionnaire might only be a starting point. The input from stakeholders should be reviewed against the data being collected from users of the system, to make sure that the organisation is properly connecting to the needs of users.

Competitive Analysis

In order to make your site stand out, we need to define its competitive advantages. Together, we'll look at the relative pros and cons of other websites. We'll consider both sites within your area of business, and unrelated sites, from both functional and design standpoints. We'll focus in particular on how competing and distracting websites are serving the needs of your users.

Expert Evaluation

A key element of the user centred design procedure is input from experienced designers and business analysts at all points. Expert evaluations are performed repeatedly during the early design prototyping stages to confirm design principles adhere to best practice principles of usability and accessibility.

Evidence Based Approach

The UCD  process is highly iterative, highly interactive, and aims to generate evidence of a continually evolving web strategy throughout. It therefore offers repeated opportunities to review progress, present findings to stakeholders, and change tack when needed.

It's our opinion that strong project leadership does not pre-suppose an absolutely rigid procedure. On the contrary, flexibility is key to achieving goals that aren't clear at the outset of the process. It's common for understandings of user requirements to change throughout the course of the UCD process, and so the website design strategy should also change based on the evidence.