You have an idea for an app or website or even a game that you want to build and you already have the technical know-how on how to do it. Do you go ahead and start, or do you take a step back and ask yourself, "What am I missing?"

The software you’re anticipating to build is not just for your personal use. You need to know what your users want and need your software to solve. Do they even need it in the first place?

In comes, User-Centered Design, otherwise known as UCD. User-Centered Design is the only way to tell whether your big idea is viable or not. And in this piece, we’ll break down this buzz word into digestible chunks for you to understand, appreciate, and implement in your project workflow.

What is User-Centered Design

User-Centered Design (UCD), also known as the Human-Centered Design, or Design Thinking, is a project approach that puts the user of the software at the center of its design and development. This guarantees that the software will be easy to use and focused solely on providing the user with the best experience.

There are four stages involved in UCD and include many different tools and technical approaches useful for an effective process. These four stages are:

1. Research

2. Concept

3. Design

4. Test

The main idea behind UCD is to achieve a greater understanding of the problem by including customers throughout the design process. Using the information gathered, you can propose a solution that is simple to use and understand.

In a nutshell, UCD allows you to do the one thing that makes a product great – concentrating on solving problems.

Let us go through the four stages of UCD, in-depth.

1. Research

The first phase of UCD is the research and analysis section. This is where you try to understand who you are designing for. This is the most critical part of the entire design process because there are various aspects of the users that you will need to put into consideration.

You can start your project by creating a persona. A persona is a representation of your targeted user. Imagine Stan Lee creating Iron Man before meeting Robert Downey Jr or Thanos before Josh Brolin gave him the creeps.

Creating personas brings life to your users and helps you understand their wants and needs better. You can include some detailed descriptions here using any data you have gathered on your customers.

But how do you gather this information in the first place?

Asking users questions through surveys can help you gather useful information and give you a clear picture of what exactly it is they want. Alternatively, you can use questionnaires, in print (go Stone Age), or through forms.

It is beneficial when customers tell you their expectations rather than trying to guess what it is they want. You can use Google forms to create questionnaires or use sites like SurveyMonkey to create your survey.

Another important task during the research phase is to perform interviews with colleagues and stakeholders of the project. This is to make sure you are meeting all the business requirements and that everyone feels like they are part of the design process from the beginning.

Once you have a deeper understanding of your users’ needs, then you can get going on the ideation phase of the project.

2. Concept

This is the phase where you get to have fun and get your creative juices flowing. But before you can start sketching design concepts and screens or a makeshift gauntlet, it is important to take a look at the users’ journey. This is the flow of how the users’ are going to use your product or service.

This is because, most of the time, you will be designing within a system, and it is essential to have an understanding of how everything fits together.

And while you’re at it, have a story. Stories have been part of human history since the beginning of time – similar to how superheroes were comical characters before Hollywood gave them screen-life and fame. More importantly, they convey innate messages about personas.

To tell your users’ stories, you can use a process known as customer journey mapping. This technique is used to illustrate the entire process you are designing.

And how you illustrate this is entirely up to you. You can use simple text or an excellent colour illustration. This will make sure that you don’t miss any step in the design process. Thus, you can brainstorm on concepts then draft them in the form of simple sketches.

Don’t worry too much about fidelity in this phase. Just like those Social Network glass boards, they don’t add extra creativity. Plus, fidelity will be a point of concern at a later stage. Instead, it would be best if you had teamwork – from a UI/UX team.

Involving both UX and UI designers helps better interpret and implement your ideas. And for better results, ideation workshops offer your team a great way to generate lots of ideas with the whole design team involved.

3. Design

This is the detailed design phase. But don’t get in too quickly.

Before you start designing, set the scene by discussing your research findings and user personas. A first stab at design can be a challenge, so this works well at warming up and setting a creative mood.

Having something to work on from paper is the best possible starting point. Don’t worry if your concept sketches look terrible – it is just a guide to your final design. These rough sketches will help you in designing a wire-frame which is the final output from the user-centered design process.

Wire-frames should be simple because you want to remove all the design discussions from this part of the process. This is because it is best to get the content and structures right before adding in the details. It also helps during testing so that the user only concentrates on the content and not the visual elements.

So, what tools should you use to create the wire-frames?

When considering a tool to create wire-frames, interactivity should be at the top of your list. Some tools connect with prototyping systems easily while others are a nightmare. The right tool will not only speed up the detailed design process but also ensure the testing phase is smoother than a trip down Titan.

4. Testing

Usability testing has never been easier. There are so many ways now to see real people speaking their thoughts as they use websites and app prototypes. A few years ago, this was reserved for big tech companies and geniuses who could code Jarvis.

The goal of user testing is to get your digital product or service in front of a customer as early as possible. You ask the participants to perform specific tasks and observe real-world usage of your product and improve from the feedback. Creating natural and realistic environments for your test group gives real feedback.

So, what techniques can you use for user testing? Try these:

a) Card sorting

Card sorting is a quick and easy way to design information architecture and menu structure for a website or app. You can use card sorting to find out how people think your content should be organized and get insights you need to make informed decisions.

With card sorting, there are advantages to using an online tool vis a vis performing the tasks in person if you have the time. With online tools, you can get more participants, thus quantitative data that gives to a solid idea of how you are doing.

On the flipside, performing the tasks in person gives you an insight into the users’ thought process, emotions, and thus gives you some detailed direct feedback that you can't get online.

So, with online testing, you get a large amount of data (quantitative) while in-person testing gives you quality feedback (qualitative).

b) Split test

A split test or an A/B test, or preference test is a head to head between two designs. In this test, users perform a simple vote between two designs, and you view the results in percentage. This is great if you are choosing between two logos, a couple of images, or a pair of design variations.

Mobile is King

During the design process, most designers tend to think of desktop users more than their mobile counterparts. That works if you’re a nineties chap designing for millennials at the dotcom boom.

But that’s not the case anymore. With mobile now leading desktop and tablet combined in market share worldwide, you need to be thinking mobile-first.

And, when testing any design, make sure you include both versions and even a tablet version if you have the time and budget.

Keep iterating

User testing should be an iterative process, not the end of a linear one. Thus, it should never be left stale for too long. More importantly, some of the feedback you get might not be what you expected to hear, so always be ready to change.

This means getting your design in front of users as early and as rough as possible. This is the only way you won't get too attached to your designs and feel offended when people nitpick on a few things.

In a nutshell

There are many more advanced techniques that we have not touched on in this section. However, this has hopefully given you an insight into the User-Centered Design Process. It will save you money, embarrassing reviews, and Déjà vu launches (I speak for no Apple).

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