Do you really want a User Centered Design approach?

Imaginary Cloud
9 min readJul 30, 2020

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few years, it’s unlikely that you have never come across User Centered Design (UCD). After UX and UI, it’s one of the most popular terms in the design field.

If you’re building a web or mobile app, you might feel that the recipe for success is to follow a User Centered Design approach. But do you actually know what is it about? Are you following a trend? Or do you really want your product to be user centered?

To answer all these questions, we’re covering below where this User Centered Design approach comes from, main principles and whether if you should follow it or not.

Where User Centered Design comes from

The term User Centered Design gained much popularity in the (not so) recent years. It was first introduced about 30 years ago in the book User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-computer Interaction written by Donald Norman and Stephen Draper. In this book, the authors speculate about central issues and questions involving designers, creators and users, when developing software.

The 80’s were kind of a primordium time when it comes to interactive systems and, as you can imagine, software design was not that good. It quickly became clear that the visual part of the system was quite necessary.

What users see is what drives their expectations of what they can and can’t do with the system.

Human-computer interaction is basically a communication between humans/users and machines, both speaking very different languages. Part of the earlier work done with User Centered Design was adapting a language already expressed by users, highlighting their needs and skills to turn complex software into something understandable and usable. So, at this time, the user needed to be at the center of the process.

In the 90’s, as computers evolved from work tools to social and personal tools, there was more to be addressed than just usability and productivity. Designers began to think about the user’s whole experience, hence the term user experience: powerful words that companies would use to differentiate themselves.

The years that followed were crucial in the interactive systems field. Not only because gradually, almost everyone began to have a computer at home, but also due to the globalisation of the world wide web.

The opportunities to create new software and interactive systems were growing. More companies would focus on this field using the User Centered approach to deliver products with a good user experience. As you can see from the image below, the popularity of the User Centered Design was at its peak about 20 years ago.

From this point on, the User Centered Design process has become a sort of dogma that designers would follow without much questioning to achieve a good user experience.

The principles of User Centered Design

But why has User Centered Design become so popular among designers? How does this approach possibly lead you to a better user experience? I think the answer lies in its principles.

Every product is unique in terms of needs, requirements, tasks, phases and even team.

The UCD approach is entirely adaptable to different scenarios. Nonetheless, some User Centered Design key principles that should be present no matter the scenario:

  1. Understanding the user and task requirements;
  2. Integrate the feedback from users when defining both requirements and design;
  3. The user is actively involved in the evaluation of the product’s design since an early stage;
  4. The User Centered Design should be incorporated into other development activities;
  5. User Centered Design is an iterative process. This means that you should repeat the process until you have reached the best solution possible.

Why is User Centered Design important?

When users are at the center of the process, it is more likely that decisions made are not biased, made of assumptions or to rely only on information gathered from them. Since the UCD approach contemplates a lot of analysis and feedback, designers can make important changes right in the earliest stages of the design process. As you can imagine, applying this method avoids design modifications in more advanced stages, which ends up being beneficial in terms of costs.

David Benyon, a professor with over 25 years of experience in the field of Human-Computer Interaction, names 4 ways in which UCD can be helpful:

  1. A UCD approach can potentially increase the sales of a product. Having the user involved in every phase of the process means that you have a better understanding of requirements and expectations. Once these are met, you’re more likely to deliver a better product, which leads to more sales.
  2. It leads to safer products. A product that is designed for specific tasks and contexts has fewer chances of human error.
  3. Because the design team is in closer contact with users, they develop not only a deeper understanding but also a stronger sense of empathy towards them.
  4. A UCD approach leads to more inclusive products. By leaving biases out of the process and focusing on all the different types of users, the design team can acknowledge all the differences between them. Whether they be in terms of age, culture or language, designers can attend them.

User Centered Design as a quality stamp

The term User Centered Design gained so much popularity that it started to be associated with good practices in the field of user experience. Nowadays, most product owners want to be able to show that they are doing User Centered Design. However, not all of them understand exactly what is involved or are not willing to invest in it. There is almost a kind of pressure to say for you to follow a User Centered approach, may it be true or not.

Involving users is not a free option. It’s like the old saying, “you have to spend money to make money”. Nevertheless, most of the product owners come with this paradox: they want their product to be user centered, but when the time comes to invest, the first thing to be cut off is user’s involvement, either by user research or user feedback.

Of course, there is also the case of product owners that already have a full concept with a prioritized feature list for a product that was created without any previous user research. This leaves no room for a User Centered Design approach.

Beyond User Centered Design

Donald Norman, the creator of UDC, is the hardest critique. He argues that designers accept the term with no questions asked and that it is also used without any criteria.

Like many fields, design and particularly, user experience design, is not a stagnated field.

Designers should not assume a particular process as a dogma without questioning it.

In an essay written by Norman, “Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful” he talks about how the process was developed: to improve software’s design and, therefore, the overall usability and understandability of products. For both human centered design and UCD, understanding the user is critical.

Norman also states two perspectives:

  1. Most of the everyday products we use daily were not designed based on the user’s understanding, but the knowledge of the activity they were intended to.
  2. History is filled with products that made users adapt to them and not the other way around.

Based on these points, understanding the user is essential. But knowing the activity and tasks that the product will have to accomplish is also equally important.

Designers are almost obsessed with creating a seamless experience, to create a product that is understandable almost by just looking at it. This is not natural. Technology is not natural. There is a learning curve, and people will need to adapt. This being said, our job as UI/UX designers is to create an outstanding user experience with the least pain points.

Think of this in this way: if you create a product that is super easy to use, but doesn’t entirely do what it was supposed to do, users will likely end up being disappointed. It’s not harmful to let your users explore your product for themselves to find out what the product is about and how to use it, as long as the activity is performed correctly.

Another important thing to consider is that, by focusing too much on individual users, you’ll likely create a perfect product for them, but a terrible one if you think of groups of users.

With that in mind, I don’t think that we should put aside understanding users. I do believe that we have to turn it down a little. It makes a lot of sense to me that focusing on the activity and tasks of a product is equally beneficial as understanding the user.

Our Product Design Process

With years of experience working directly with product owners, we developed our own process: The Product Design Process. We looked at already existing processes and techniques and merged those with our own field of experience and feedback.

As you can see, our process contemplates the user’s introduction in the process. Not only by conducting user interviews in the user research step, desirability tests on the moodboard, but also usability tests on the wireframes. However, those steps are not mandatory. Our advice is to put all the phases and steps at use when possible, but to adjust it to every project’s needs and budget.

The goal of our process is to achieve the best product possible while still being realistic. As I said before, our field’s reality is that most product owners don’t want to invest in user involvement, so we had to find ways around it.

Proto-personas is something that we do in almost every project. Unlike personas, proto-personas are based on the product owner’s existing knowledge or assumptions about the users. This is not perfect, yet, it has proven to be helpful. Since it allows us to baseline assumptions, it helps to avoid mistakes like elastic users, self-referential design and edge cases. It also provides a reference document that will help troubleshoot if the product is not received as expected by the users when launched. All this considering each project’s budget and effort.

The Decision Matrix step is equally important and sensitive.
After concluding the benchmark, personas and user journey, usually, everyone involved has many different ideas for features that the product must-have. In this step, those features are going to be prioritized based on both user and business goals. This way you can guarantee that you have a Minimal Viable Product (MVP), meaning that even under time and budget constraints, the team will develop a viable product.

What Norman said, here we can put it into practice. We don’t focus only on the user, we do our work to understand what are the expected activities and tasks and what they involve.

So, do you really want a UCD approach?

Now that you know better in what consists of a UDC approach, you can clearly decide whether to invest in it.

One thing is sure, you should not follow any approach blindly just because it’s popular or because all the cool kids are doing it.

First of all, you should be clear on what every approach implies and if you have the necessary team, budget and time. And, even if you do, is that approach the one that suits your product better? Maybe your product is small and doesn’t need all the steps of a method. Perhaps it is too big and the approach you are using is not the most applicable.

By being aware of an approach to follow, you may adapt it or combine some of its steps to fit your product and its goals better. This must be considered before compromising with a strategy so you can get best outcome possible.

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Originally published at on July 30, 2020.



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