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What Is User-Centered Design?

C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell

User-centered design (UCD) is a business term, most common in the software and web development industries, that applies to consumer-facing manufacturing strategies. Companies use user-centered design methods to ensure that their products will meet consumers’ needs. Corporate officers and project design teams often have different ideas about what consumers want in a product or service than the consumers do. For this reason, small groups of users are often involved directly in the product development process, providing input and giving feedback on this such as aesthetic appearance and responsiveness of controls. When this happens, a company is said to be engaging in user-centered design.

Most computer products and software programs are designed with ease of use in mind. It can be difficult for manufacturers to anticipate how consumers are actually going to be using their products, however. The technical aspects of how a product works are often very different from its overall look and feel to the user, and actual human-computer actions can be difficult to guess in a lab.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

A vibrant website with sounds, colors and moving pictures often makes a favorable first impression but might leave visitors disenchanted if pertinent information or contacts are hard to find. Similarly, a computer that operates quickly, has great connectivity and has a dynamic operating system might nevertheless leave consumers frustrated if the battery life is too short or if popular applications will not load. A user-centered design philosophy seeks to directly involve consumers and prospective consumers into the product design process. This way, needed changes can be made in development, not in later product iterations or releases.

Design teams that intend to incorporate elements of user-centered design usually begin by contacting a small group of target customers. Sometimes these people are individuals or business executives who have purchased the designer’s products before, but other times they are strangers who have been chosen based on their demographics, interests or other factors. Companies often hire usability specialists or consulting firms to help compile a group of appropriate consumers.

Most of the chosen consumers work on a volunteer basis, though they are sometimes paid a small stipend for their services or are offered other perks. They usually must commit to meeting with the design team at regular intervals to discuss and evaluate the product. Group members will have a chance to interact with the design team about the plans, as well as a chance to offer candid feedback on things such as conceptual ideas or prototype projects. Oftentimes, group members also are invited to test completed projects and offer feedback on programs or hardware just before they are released to the market.

One of the main benefits of user-centered design is the resulting pervasive usability in programs and products. By focusing on human-centered computing, companies are able to ensure that programs that are structurally sound are also market-worthy. Over the long term, this can promote brand loyalty and goodwill. It also can help companies stay ahead of the competition by giving consumers more of exactly what they want.

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      Woman doing a handstand with a computer