3 Basics of User-Centered Design

By Heather Winkle, Manager of User Experience, FileMaker, Inc. — October 09, 2013

We’re surrounded by software. We repeatedly check our iPhones for messages. We use self-checkout lines in the supermarket, monitor the GPS systems in our cars, cruise the Netflix queues on our televisions.  More and more, we’re facing screens — and not computer screens. 

Mobile computing has arrived, and it’s changed our expectations of software. Today, it’s no longer good enough for a software product or application to work — it has to work well.  The developers that are making a difference in our world are taking great technologies and shaping them with user-centered design. 

User-centered design is an established methodology for product interface design that involves users in each stage of the design process.  It forces product developers to focus on the user — and to step away from the computer.

3 Basic Principles
The basic principles of user-centered design are:

  1. Observe users — their goals, behaviors, mental models.
  2. Make technology serve users — not the other way around.
  3. Test with users — give them a natural goal, then sit back and watch.
If you’re doing user-centered design right, you’ll be repeating this process over and over again until you hone in on what really meets users’ expectations.

Think Goals Not Features
Start by understanding what the user wants to achieve, not the features you think he needs.

Why?  Because goals are much more descriptive than features. Think about it:  A Porsche and a riding lawnmower have the same features: an internal combustion engine, four wheels and rubber tires, a transmission, and a steering wheel.  But when described in terms of goals, the lawnmower cuts grass evenly while seating me comfortably.  Big difference from a Porsche!

Create a One-Sentence Problem Statement
Describe your user’s goal as a one-sentence problem statement:
Design a [form of solution]
For [user type]
To [human activity]
With [level of support]
For example, for a hospital, the statement might be:
Design a [kiosk application]
For [urgent care patients]
To [sign in]
With [speed]
Yes, your user will likely have more than one goal. Write down all your users’ goals and their problem statements.  However, don’t try to solve every problem at once.  Solve a simple problem first, then gradually add complexity. See where you go too far, or when it’s just enough. You’ll know.
Think Differently
By stepping away from the computer, you’ve freed yourself to think and act differently during the design process.  Do it. 
Suspend disbelief and be creative — the computer isn’t always right; let it do the heavy lifting.  Instead of counting just on the computer, do some “whiteboarding” with users,  Borrow design patterns from other places, and test and iterate using low-fidelity models first.  And remember, more isn’t necessarily better.


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