May 10, 2013

User-Centered Design: A Marriage Between Design and User

User-centered design is a type of user interface design and a process in which the needs, wants, and limitations of users of a product or website are addressed thoroughly at every step of the design process. The key to user-centered design is approaching a project, design problem, or piece of software as partnership on all fronts.

Developing a website that implements user-centered design is much like marriage. It is a relationship between design and the user, let’s take a look at the journey…

A digital agency enters courtship with a client because they share common interests, or responds to an RFP like an online dater to an e-Harmony ad. The relationship grows as each side proves themselves and displays trust. Eventually vows are made, the client and agency sign a contract. Work begins and the "marriage" is consummated, but things don't end there - there are plenty of kinks to work out. Just because expectations and a schedule are set, doesn't mean they live happily ever after.

User-centered design is a process within a process. During the length of a project, many iterations of a design will be created, scrapped, recreated, shot down, improved and eventually agreed upon. There isn’t just the honeymoon phase. Every relationship goes through its ups and downs. What isn't necessarily stated up front is that neither the client nor the designer is infallible. There will be differences of opinion.

Let's take a step back and look at who the user really is.

In terms of user-centered design, the user is the end consumer and target of all of the project's efforts. It's also important to note that the client is part of the user pool, although their opinions may be biased. In the user-centered design process, the user provides feedback at all phases and during all iterations of project. This can be everything from market research, ethnographic studies and report analysis, to more hands-on measures like usability and prototype testing.

In a marriage, however, the "user" is actually many people. Certainly, the spouses of a marriage are the most important individuals, but many other people affect this relationship as well. Peers, friends, family, counselors, lawyers, priests, and so on have the power to strengthen or break a marriage. Listening to everyone's advice all at once can be extremely problematic. Valuing outside influencers' opinions over your spouse is even worse. But, thinking you know everything and not looking for ways to constantly build and strengthen your relationship is the quickest way to lose the love and respect of others.

Don't forget that people and projects also change with time! There are no defined benchmarks in a marriage that say "if I hold in there for this long, I win." The same is true with a brand or project. Websites live on after their launch date, and should evolve with their users and with web standards.  Ask users for feedback with your designs and embrace critique and data. Ask your wife or husband how they feel, and actually listen. In the end, success can be measured by whether or not your partner (spouse, client or consumer), is happy.

The user can be the partner, priest, counselor, parent, etc. but what's important is the constant input. In the beginning the excitement and newness can help create a spark, but as time progresses, communication is what keeps it all together.


[Contributed by Alex Lockwood, Senior Designer]


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