In recent years, user-centered design (UCD) has become widespread well beyond the design field. Companies and organizations ranging from NASA to IKEA and everything in between have benefited from adopting UCD.
UCD is not one of those design trends that will come and go in the blink of an eye. UCD is here to stay — or, put more accurately, companies that practice UCD are here to stay. Why? Well, as the internet and software technology become even more essential parts of our lives, a user experience (UX) centered on the end user becomes an increasingly critical aspect of product and service design.
Now more than ever, good UX equals good business. By examining use cases that highlight UCD’s benefits, you can better understand why UCD is important for any business.
So, What Is “User-Centered Design”?
Before we proceed in our examination of these use cases, let’s get clear on what we’re talking about. What is UCD? Where did it come from?
The term “user-centered design” originated in Donald Norman’s cognitive science research laboratory at the University of California San Diego in the 1980s. According to the Interaction Design Foundation, UCD is “an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.” In other words, UCD involves users throughout the entire design process in order to create products and services that revolve around an understanding of how, where, when, and why people use a product or service.
What’s All the Buzz About? Why Is UCD Important?
Why are businesses across industries talking about UCD? The “buzz” is real because UCD has proven to be effective in creating stronger products and experiences that delight users. Ultimately, this translates to product and business success.
By explaining how UCD is or isn’t being used, the following use cases help to illustrate some of the many benefits of UCD.
Shaping Stronger Products: Learning from Segway’s Sad Story
You can only deliver the best solution if you spend time listening to, observing, and understanding your user, their needs, and their motivations. If you don’t practice empathy in your design process, you may wind up trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist for a user who doesn’t care about your offering. That’s why UCD is not only good design practice, but also good business. A product isn’t viable unless it solves a real problem by considering what the user/buyer wants or needs.
Consider the example of Segway, a product that “failed to gain market acceptance and is now something of a curiosity.” Why did it fail? Segway Inc. did not use a UCD approach in its conception. They didn’t spend time trying to understand the problems of potential users before coming up with a proposed solution.
Segway was kept very much a secret until its launch. It was designed without user feedback or iteration. Considering the principles of UCD, this is equivalent to moving forward without knowing which direction forward is.
While it’s okay not to know the right direction when you begin a project, UCD helps you figure out your direction early on in the process. In the book Creative Confidence, IDEO founder and Stanford Design School founder David M. Kelley and his brother and IDEO partner, Tom Kelley, explain it thus:"The closer to final a product is, the harder to let go of a concept that is not working. The best kind of failures are quick, cheap and early; leaving plenty of time and resources to iterate."
In the end, Segway’s product didn’t have an end user in mind, and was not solving a specific user problem. Instead, the product came saddled with new user problems such as “Where do you ride it or park it?” and “How do you charge it?” Those user problems posed significant issues that didn’t surface until after the product launch. These mistakes — as well as the humongous loss of capital that followed the product’s launch — could have been avoided by simply doing some user research in the early stages of product development.
Forging Loyalty among Customers: Lyft and Uber Change the Taxi Game
Good UX can differentiate you from the competition and keep users coming back to you. What better way to ensure a good user experience than by knowing your user?
It’s simple math: UX — U = X. When — through UCD — you keep the user in the equation, you achieve a deep understanding of the user. That understanding gives you a better chance at creating an experience that keeps that user coming back. The best part is that, if you don’t get it right on the first pass, the quick iteration process helps you get it right. As you continue gathering user feedback, you keep improving your product. You don’t stop improving until your product’s UX feels as seamless and pleasant as opening a brand-new Apple computer.
With good UX, users will want to continue using your product and choose it over the competition’s. In addition, good UX becomes your best advertising. Customers love sharing positive experiences with friends and family to convince them to try a new product or service.
For example, consider Lyft and Uber. These companies saw a problem in the user experience of taxi services. Hailing a cab is inconvenient, requiring high levels of effort and time. Many factors are out of customers’ control, such as weather, demand, and traffic. That’s not a pleasant start for any UX.
After you finally get a taxi and arrive at your destination, there’s too much room for disputes regarding pricing and payment methods. Though you’d prefer to get out of your taxi as quickly as possible, in the best-case scenario, you need to spend an extra minute or two swiping your card and waiting for your payment to go through. In the worst-case scenario, your driver tells you they only accept cash and you realize you’re not carrying any. Either way, the experience doesn’t end any better than it started.
In contrast, Lyft and Uber offer a convenient, pleasant experience. The good UX begins by allowing users to wait in the comfort of their own couches up until the moment the driver is close by. It continues until users are able to get out of the car efficiently, not wasting a second paying or occasioning any unpleasant honking from cars waiting behind them.
When you first heard about Lyft or Uber, you may have been hesitant. You may have thought, “What? Getting inside a stranger’s car? Sounds like what my parents would tell me not to do when I was a kid.” Soon enough, however, all your friends, and even your normally tech-averse aunt, are using it, telling you how easy it is.
You can only achieve this improved UX with a deep understanding of the user, their needs and pain points, and the context of use. Talk about dominating the market… who takes a Yellow Taxi anymore? All thanks to better UX.
Discovering Opportunities for Innovation: Looking Out Instead of In
We tend to come up with ideas for products or services based on our own hypotheses. It’s only natural that this process occurs when you’re observing and identifying a problem. Then, most likely, you introspectively start thinking of solutions. Once you arrive at what seems like a good solution, you share it with colleagues or friends who are likely not your potential users.
What if you shared it with your actual potential users early on, getting their perspectives from the start? It’s only logical, because in the end they’re the ones who’ll be using your service or product. They can share the most valuable insights.
To be clear, getting users’ perspectives is not as simple as asking them “What do you think about this?” or “What could be done better?” Why? As automotive innovator Henry Ford eloquently said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Instead, UCD methodologies such as contextual inquiries, participatory design, concept testing, and field studies enable UX designers to discover profoundly ingrained motivations, needs, goals, and fears that couldn’t be revealed any other way. We’re often surprised when we discover our initial hypotheses may not be accurate. We may find that users don’t use something the way we thought, or that we’d missed an even bigger problem that needs to be tackled.
UCD helps you make these discoveries before you drop millions into designing and launching the wrong solution. It helps you make more informed design and business decisions that help you design truly innovative and effective solutions.
Good Design Is Good Business
Next time you’re making a design decision about any aspect of your product or business, remember UCD. Don’t be like Segway, building a product that creates rather than solves problems. Instead, be like Uber and Lyft, building a product that provides a true solution to a real user problem. Believe the buzz: If you start by remembering your end user, you give your product the best possible chance of success.
Interested in investigating how UCD can help you improve your product’s UX? Let us know!
UI/UX Designer Mariana Herrera joined the Distillery family in 2018. Mariana has designed UX and interfaces for web and mobile apps for a wide range of clients, from medical to fitness to marketing. She loves collaborating with teams to discover, understand, and communicate clients’ business requirements and customers’ emotional desires. In her free time, Mariana enjoys using books and podcasts to stay up to date on industry trends. She also likes yoga, surfing, traveling, trying new foods, and discovering new experiences.