User Centered Design: Focusing Software Development on the Users

    Imagine a world in which your development team is able to roll out an application that is immediately loved by users and adopted without question or complaint. By employing user centered design, the needs and preferences of your users are as important as features and functionality. 

    What is User Centered Design?

    Accessibility and usability are important, but these two design concepts are just sensible and responsible. They ensure that your products work for humans. User centered design digs deeper, understanding that your specific users are special and unique, and insists that their experience with your product be tailored and idyllic. User centered design is a supplement to existing product development efforts. 

    Also read: Top Automation Testing Tools for Software Performance

    Five Stages of User Centered Design


    Further to requirements gathering, user centered design requires that your team identify who will use your product. As you look for answers, high-level queries (such as the average age of your target group, or their anticipated level of education) should lead to increasingly more granular details. The answers to these questions enable your team to create detailed personas. These archetypes become representative of your users, allowing for grouping by behaviors, demographics, needs, goals, skills, etc. 

    Avoid making assumptions. Just because your product has nothing to do with physical activity, learning your users all share a common interest in competitive sports may indicate an eagerness to learn. Users with a passion for travel may be more open to new experiences.

    Depending on the complexity of your project and the number of users you identify, a number of research strategies can be used. Interviews are common but focus groups and surveys can also be helpful. 

    Concept design

    Start creating scenarios, describing how users will interact with your product. Begin with brief descriptions, and as you walk each of your personas through these situations, look for ways their knowledge, expectations, abilities, and limitations may require your empathy and attention.

    Scenarios lead to the development of use cases, defining single tasks that a user must complete to achieve their desired goal. Don’t be discouraged when you end up needing to adjust and re-think your initial scenarios—that’s the whole point. Take this opportunity to find the places where users may be confused, misdirected, or have their time wasted. 

    User testing and prototypes

    While it’s tempting to dive straight into development, the creation of prototypes provides an opportunity to see what actual users think of your design. Prototypes can take a variety of forms, but whether you employ flow charts, wireframes, or something else entirely, the goal is to provide a walkthrough of your proposed solutions.

    Don’t take it personally if things aren’t quite right the first time (or second, or third). Ask more questions, add more details, implement feedback, and update your prototypes. It can be frustrating to spend significant time circling around and around in this design phase, but the investment will pay off with the provision of more detailed specifications to your developers.

    Don’t forget to create separate prototypes for every platform where your project will be deployed.


    No matter how detailed your scenarios, how specific your use cases, or how comprehensive your prototypes, it’s critical that you engage users throughout the development stage as well.

    In some instances, well designed prototypes fall victim to external forces, such as bandwidth constraints, that sabotage the user’s experience.  

    Preparing for launch

    Prior to launch, it’s important to be sure your project passes all of its tests. Engage actual users in usability testing, compare your prototypes to the finished product, and be sure your business requirements have also been met. 

    Also read: UX/UI: Trends to Watch and Mistakes to Avoid

    Key Benefits of User Centered Design

    • Safety: When applications are designed to accommodate specific tasks and situations, the possibility of human error is reduced. This increased safety may also extend to data security.
    • Ethics and diversity: Having a deep understanding of your users allows for ethical designs that respect privacy, cultural diversity, and offer an increased quality of life.
    • Boost competitiveness: When users feel invested in your product, they are less likely to consider your competitors. 
    • Improve credibility: Increased user satisfaction has a directly proportional effect on their trust in your organization, and their likelihood of return and referral. 

    Top User Centered Design Mistakes

    Decision making friction

    Nothing is more frustrating than having to create an account on an ecommerce website before being forced to step most of the way through the checkout process, just to find out the shipping rates. While your intentions may be good, this methodology serves businesses instead of users. Ultimately, most users won’t complete the purchase if they feel the shipping price is too high—and now you have also wasted their time.  

    Consider the following as an alternative: you provide detailed shipping information to users without the need for account creation or checkout, you review your website logs and learn that a large number of visitors to your site visit the shipping information page and then exit without making a purchase. These details equip you with the information you need to make changes.

    Personal bias

    You are already on board with this project. You don’t need to be engaged. Design decisions should be made as a direct result of the information learned during your research activities.

    One interface to rule them all

    Don’t discount that different users need different prototypes, different user journeys, and  different languages. Be sure the design of your project takes into account that different roles or categories of users may have their own unique needs.

    Remember that users can sometimes switch roles, so consistency is king. Tasks may change, but the look and feel should remain the same for all design interface elements. 

    Replacing legacy systems without a smooth transition plan

    If your project is charged with replacing an existing, legacy system, don’t forget to factor transition into your design plan. While retraining and migration may be unavoidable, be sure to have empathy for users who are made anxious or uneasy by change.

    If it goes without saying, don’t say it

    If text isn’t necessary, remove it. If a feature doesn’t add value, remove it. If options add confusion, remove them. 

    Good Usable Design is Possible

    There is an old saying that you shouldn’t practice until you get it right, you should practice until you can’t get it wrong. This same concept applies to user centered design. Providing a better experience for your users is an iterative and ongoing process that requires businesses to put assumptions and egos aside in exchange for empathy and consideration.

    The differences between satisfying a user and frustrating them can be subtle. By involving end users throughout the design and development process, your end product will be highly usable and accessible.

    Read next: Security-First UX: Experiencing The Digital World Safely

    Jillian Koskie
    Jillian Koskie
    Jillian Koskie is an experienced software developer, writer, business analyst, and usability design expert. With over 24 years in these roles, Jillian has enjoyed applying her considerable skill-set to assist clients and users across a wide variety of sectors including: legal, health, and financial services. Combining these professional opportunities with a love of technology, Jillian is pleased to act as a trusted advisor, contribute articles, voice opinions, and offer advice to numerous organizations, news outlets, websites, and publications.

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