A Guide to User-Centered Design: Principles, Methods, and Processes 

What makes a good product design? Most people will point towards the aesthetics and perceived intuitiveness that need to be inherent to a product’s design. However, a lot more is needed to really guarantee a functional product. 

Companies often have to learn the hard way that relying on design skills alone far from guarantees a highly functional product. Having a good eye and strong set of design skills is of course hugely advantageous when designing products and experiences, but if you rely on those alone, there is a good chance that the flows you create will turn out to be more problematic for your users than expected.

The simple reason for this -as any experienced product designer will tell you- is that you cannot design products and experiences based on intuition and assumptions alone. Even if you do everything by the book and check every single box with regards to the fundamentals of good visual design, you will need to involve your users in the design process. Your users hold the answers to your most important questions and involving them in the design process is the ultimate way to ensure a great user experience and a product that they can be successful with. 


That’s where user-centered design comes in. Being user-centric in your design ensures that your product’s function is validated by the end user – every step along the way. That way, when it comes time to launch, you know that your product not only fulfills a very specific need but that it does so effectively. 

It’s fair to say that centering your design around your users is the only way to ensure your product succeeds in a competitive marketplace.


What is user-centered design?

“The key is to set realistic customer expectations, and then not to just meet them, but to exceed them - preferably in unexpected and helpful ways.”

Richard Branson, Business Magnate

User-centered design (UCD) puts users at the heart of the design process. Every process that goes into new product development must consider the user first – their needs, objectives, and feedback.

Designers who apply this philosophy are empowered to create products that form unique connections with the communities they serve. After all, without users, what’s the point of your product? 

User-centered design definition in a sentence:
“User-centered design (UCD) is an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.”

Interaction Design Foundation

With UCD, your users are involved in every step of the design process. This way, you can be sure that your product is effectively fulfilling its purpose; not just in what value it offers the user, but also in how it offers that value to the user. A user-centered approach to design helps ensure that your product isn’t just another generic solution that will inevitably get discarded when something better comes along. It ensures clear value, user-friendliness and a positive user experience. The key to being truly user-centric is that you not only loop in your users while designing a solution, but that you continuously collect feedback and iterate on your designs accordingly; which helps future-proof your product and ensure it stays relevant.

Human-centered vs. user-centered design

There is an important distinction to be made between humans and users. Simply put, all users are humans, but not all humans will be users of your product.

To create a winning user-centered design, you’ll need a deep knowledge of your target audience. Conduct extensive research into your users’ challenges and aspirations. Talk with them and offer multiple opportunities to provide feedback. Do this, and you’ll develop a well-rounded user persona that you can use to establish your design priorities. It’s important to know that different user segments might have different needs, different levels of technical abilities and different expectations when it comes to using products like the one you’ve created. 

So what are important principles to take into account when taking a user-centric approach to design?

Important user-centered design principles

“People ignore design that ignores people.”

Frank Chimero

There are many ways to approach the process of user-centered design. Ultimately, your strategy will depend on your particular industry and target-audience.

That said, there are some universal principles that are helpful for you to keep in mind.

  • Involve users from the very beginning. You won’t have a clear understanding of your users’ requirements unless they’re involved from the start. If you try to involve users at a later stage in product development, you might have already gone too far down the wrong path.
  • User-centered design should be empathetic. UCD requires you to step into your user’s shoes. Focus on solving their pain points, not just on launching a product that’s easy for you to get to market. 
  • Use an iterative design process. Good design doesn’t happen overnight. Expect to go through several iterations, and don’t expect to move forward every time. You might learn something new about your user that requires you to go back and change a fundamental element of your design. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Be confident in exploring new avenues of creativity.
  • Involve multiple feedback loops. Different types of data are essential when it comes to evaluating your product and its effectiveness. Gather qualitative and quantitative data at multiple steps along the way. Offer several opportunities for submitting feedback – both from your internal team and your external users.
  • Follow the fundamentals of good design. When it comes to the practical application of these principles, the fundamentals of great design still apply. Keep things simple, and think like your user.

At the end of the day, every company is different and you may want to develop some principles of your own for you and your team. The above user-centered principles offer a good foundation to build upon.

User-centered design methods

Now that we’ve explored some key principles behind user-centered design, let’s explore some of the research methods that any user-centric designer should familiarize themselves with. With understanding the user being a fundamental part of user-centered design, knowing which research method to use and how to employ it effectively is crucial. 

Focus Groups

Running a focus group involves inviting a group of your intended users to collectively share their thoughts and opinions about a product, a user path or simply particular issues you will be solving with your product.

Some characteristics of focus groups: 

  • A good way to get multiple perspectives at once
  • Great for defining product use cases
  • Requires an experienced moderator
  • Data is largely qualitative
  • Generally a small sample size
  • Relatively low costs, especially when done remotely.

Questionnaires & surveys

Well-designed questionnaires and surveys can help obtain a large amount of statistical data regarding specific challenges or needs your users face.

Some characteristics of Questionnaires and surveys: 

  • Feedback is generally brief and simple
  • Care needs to be taken to design effective questions that are unbiased
  • Data can be both qualitative and quantitative
  • Allows for a larger sample size
  • Relatively low costs of respondents are sourced from your user base.

Interviews

Interviews are especially effective in the early stages of the design process. The open format allows you to dig for detailed insights that may be overlooked in other research methods.

Some characteristics of user interviews: 

  • Good for gathering in-depth information regarding individual needs and behaviors
  • Requires an experienced interviewer and detailed analysis of answers
  • Data is mostly qualitative
  • Small sample size
  • Time consuming and therefore high opportunity cost

Usability Testing

In usability testing, users interact with the product directly while a moderator takes notes and records feedback. This used to be done mainly in a live environment, but can also be done asymmetrically with certain tools. It’s an excellent for of ethnographic research and a good way to uncover bugs and other issues.

Some characteristics of usability testing: 

  • Used to generate feedback on designs and user interaction
  • Requires at least a developed prototype to test
  • Data can be qualitative and quantitative
  • Small to medium sample size
  • High cost when done live, cheaper when done with tools like Hotjar. 

Card Sorting

Card sorting is a UX method used primarily to test and design the overall architecture of a website or application. It generally involves asking users to organize content, pages and topics into categories that makes sense to them and possibly helping you label these categories. The key is to gain unique insight into how users think about the features and content on your website or app so that you can build a user-friendly architecture. 

Some characteristics of card sorting:

  • Important for making decisions on architecture
  • Data is quantitative
  • Usually a medium sample size
  • Relatively time-consuming

Participatory Design

Participatory design sessions are a great way to involve users in the generation of different product prototypes directly. However, they’re best used when combined with other design methods, not as standalone process. 

  • Used to involve all shareholders (employees, users, designers, partners, etc.) in the design process
  • It can generate valuable insights but can be complicated to carry out effectively
  • Data is qualitative
  • Usually a small sample size
  • Cost and time varies

There is no single research method that is best suited for user-centered design. It’s important to have a firm grasp of all the different methods out there so that you can adapt your research to your design process and easily access the information you need to be successful.

How to create a user-centered design process 

As seen above, there’s a range of different methods you can employ when designing new products and experiences. The key to know what to use and when lies in having a good user-centered design process that your team can orient itself around. 

Below are some of the key steps making a process that supports user-centric design across your team.

1. Research

When done right, research can be a lengthy process. Your overall goal should be to develop a deep understanding of your users’ needs and requirements. If done correctly, the insights derived from your research will play a big role in developing a compelling user-centric product.

Employ a combination of the research methods listed above to gain a holistic picture of your users. Then, you can develop user personas that guide your product development process from ideation to deployment. 

Clear user personas can be a huge help at the beginning of the design process. It gives you an example of your archetypal user and allows you to effectively group users with similar patterns – their behavior, backgrounds, needs, and goals. A product can target multiple personas, but it is important to know who you are designing for and which personas’ considerations are key to which flows and features within your product.

Remember, always start the design process with your user, not the product. By focusing on the user, you’ll understand which features to prioritize, how to market to them, and even what visual design elements to incorporate. 

Research is not only a crucial stage in the user-centered design process, but it also is one of the most challenging. Collecting the right data, keeping it organized, mapping it onto user journeys and deriving concrete actions from it isn’t easy. If you’re looking for a platform that can help turn user research data into meaningful action, you should check out Reveall.

2. Define and align your requirements

It’s good to shoot for the moon, but you still have to design a technically feasible and financially viable product. That’s where setting the right goals and requirements comes in.

It’s important to work with other team members to establish the boundaries of your project. In the words of Basecamp’s Shape Up approach to product management, you need to define a clear appetite and scope for your designs and then ensure they align well with your user needs. 

There may be some back-and-forth needed between the design and other teams. But eventually, correctly aligned goals will create a win-win product for all involved. There is nothing more painful than investing time and effort into researching and designing something that gets blocked by stakeholders due to some form of misalignment. 

3. Design solutions

Once you’ve collected all the information you need, you’re ready to start prototyping your designs. This is the fun part! Bring all your ideas to life with an engaging design.

Start with a bare-bones wireframe and work from there. Even though you’re not at the official testing phase yet, remember to validate your decisions at each step. You’ve already collected a lot of useful data to inform this process and regular feedback will keep you from getting too far off track.

Flesh out your wireframe with a user journey map and storyboard. The map will help you visualize your users’ journey as they interact with your product, and the storyboard will provide an emotional justification for each design choice along the way. 

Once you’ve come up with a rough draft, critique your design by asking yourself relevant questions. For example:

  • Is it accessible? Make sure that the user can quickly locate the information they need. Offer various routes to the same pieces of information, or make sure they’re guided onto the right path.
  • Is it easy to understand? The design needs to facilitate immediate comprehension. What is its purpose, who is it for, and how do you use it? The text should be easy to read. Language should be short and sweet. 

4. Evaluate with feedback

Now is the right time to bring your user back into the process. Evaluate your prototype through extensive user testing and feedback. 

Observe how users interact with your product.

  • Does this design solve the users’ primary issues?
  • What can be done to improve this design?
  • How is the user research incorporated into this design?
  • What went well in this process? How can it be repeated?

You can repeat some design methods from the user research phase – focus groups, usability testing, etc. – to gather more insights about how close you came to the mark. 

Don’t expect to get everything right the first time. User-centered design is an approach that requires patience but will produce the best results in the end.

5. Iterate

Most important of all: Iterate. Then re-iterate. Then repeat. Do this as many times as it takes to reach a product that delights your users. If you know that there are elements on your application that are in dire need of fixing, you don’t want to wait around for the perfect solution to be designed. Start with some feedback, build something that’s better than the current solution and keep iterating from there. 

Remember, it’s ok to fail sometimes. All the best products started as unpolished ideas and rough outlines. Keep your user at the forefront, and you’ll have a guiding force that keeps you on track. 

Once you create a great product, your users will be your best evangelists. There’s no better growth strategy than that.

User-centered design examples 

Now that we’ve covered the basics of what user-centered design entails, let’s take a look at some examples of user-centered design. 

Typeform

People often get tired of boring surveys. So much so that we often close it the moment we open it. The basic format hadn’t changed for years – forms and questionnaires that just reminded us of school tests. It became difficult to convince people to engage and provide feedback. 

Then Typeform came along and made surveys that people enjoyed answering. By only presenting a single question at a time, surveys became more like conversations. This simple design choice encourages more thoughtful answers and higher completion rates. Designers can also program the survey to provide conditional follow-up questions to ensure a more natural flow - one where no unnecessary or irrelevant questions ever need to be asked. 

By packaging the experience with beautiful colors, images and customizing the form according to brand guidelines, Typeform demonstrates that UCD can transform even the most seemingly self-explanatory products.

Notion

Notion is a tool that’s hard to define because it’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Businesses can use it for project management, team collaboration, archiving documents, or building databases. But individuals have found it helpful and even enjoyable to use for expense tracking, personal scheduling, note-taking, or even publishing portfolios and resumes. 

Yes, Notion can be an interesting solution for individual use cases like project management, but it usually serves a much more general focus. It’s very difficult to build a product that serves many different use-cases while still having a user-centric approach to its design. Notion manages to do exactly that by focusing on people’s organizational  challenges, their overall mindset and how they approach things like visual organization in general. 

And the results are clear. Ever since it hit the market, Notion has been popular amongst designers and other professionals alike. By taking into account the commonalities of their different user personas, Notion has become a tool that is incredibly versatile and seems to adapt to the user’s needs, whatever they may be, like a Swiss army knife

User-centered design tools 

Hotjar

Hotjar is one of the best ways to visualize how users are interacting with your website or application. User heatmaps and interaction recordings show users’ actual behavior, while feedback forms and surveys communicate further user requirements. As a result, it’s an excellent tool for gaining valuable insights into your users’ needs. 

Reveall

Reveall helps turn your customer research data into clearly prioritized actions. It’s an all-in-one platform for teams that put users at the center of their work.

There’s no point in compiling a bunch of data that gets filed away forever or is too confusing to inspire meaningful actions. But our clients tell us that this happens all the time.  

Reveall helps you automatically gather both quantitative and qualitative customer data from feedback and research. Within the platform, you can make sure that data is visualized through journeys and stories in a way that enables you to get to the bottom of your customers’ needs. Then, you can act. Identify the opportunities and set priorities to help you achieve your goals. 

Figma

Figma is an all-in-one tool for design, collaboration, and prototyping. Once you’ve got a good handle on the requirements of your users, you’ll need to brainstorm and develop your design. 

Figma’s editor is fun and simple to use – for beginners and experienced product creators alike. Collaboration is facilitated by sticky notes and diagrams on a live whiteboard, and you can manage all your assets in a single, sharable file. 

All in all, it’s an attractive, comprehensive platform for building UI, UX, graphic design, or web development projects.

UsabilityHub

A user research platform that allows you to validate designs in real-time – with real users. Design surveys, tests, or compare your different design options. It’s a wildly helpful tool for designers, markets, and product managers alike.

Final thoughts

User-centered design isn’t just about creating a great product. It goes beyond that. By putting your users in the spotlight, you’re demonstrating your motivations and intentions. You’re showing that it isn’t all about meeting deadlines or making a profit. Instead, you’re communicating to your users that you understand what they want and prioritize their needs. 

It is ultimately no surprise that the highest performing teams are those that are user-centric. Knowing your customer is the key to success, and design is no exception. Create products that center the user, and you’ll create products that people love. 

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