Our guide to user-centred design

Our guide to user-centred design

10 minutes

What is user-centred design?

User-centred design (UCD) or user experience design (UXD) is the principle of designing a product or service from the perspective of the end user and considering how they will interact with it. This then becomes the basis of your design process. It’s not limited to web or digital.

The process starts by looking at who your users are and considering what they want to use your product for or what they need to use it for.

It’s a way of looking at design as much more than the slightly superficial elements that people normally think of like colours, images, typography and so on. These things are an important part of the process because they play a role in things like legibility and accessibility, but user-centred design is a much more holistic approach that encompasses everything from technical design to visual design and branding.

As an example, the Gov.uk website (that I’m sure you have all used) has an incredibly stripped back, basic design and almost looks like they’ve forgotten to “design” it in the that traditional sense.


Despite this, or rather because of it, the site is often cited as best practice for UX design because of the way it strips everything else away and forces you to focus on the task you need to do, whether that’s requesting a tax return or checking your retirement age.

That might sound logical, but I’m sure you can think of examples of people clearly not following this approach. There are still some companies that organise their website navigation around a their internal structure and various departments, which isn't relevant to the people using the site. Equally, there are still lots of products around which have started off life with a technology solution first and have then worked out how people will use it as a secondary priority. At Kolab, we’re also increasingly seeing websites that look fantastic until you actually try and use them and realise you can’t find anything.

User experience designers (I’m not one) tend to be a fairly evangelical breed and can sometimes act as if what they're doing has never been done before, but good visual designers, business analysts and industrial/product designers have been doing this for years, they just haven’t been calling it UX. Looking back into the past, the team who designed Windows 95 for example were way ahead of their time in creating an interface that people could use without having to remember strings of codes or needing days of training. And famously when iPhones started to become really popular about seven years ago, there was a phenomenon when people realised their two-year-olds could use them because they were so intuitive. I remember working with someone at the time who pointed out that his child struggled with his android phone but had no problem with an iPad.

Although being a UX designer (or a UX researcher or even a UX strategist) is now a well recognised profession, everyone should be approaching what they do from the point of view of the users. Designing a digital experience should never be about what looks nice or what’s technically easy but what delivers the best experience for the user. Sometimes that’s about the little things, like not making people enter details twice, making sure error messages are clear and adding subtle highlighting or animation to a page so the user knows what they need to do next. And that could be the difference between you being Google Chrome or Internet Explorer.


or being Internet Explorer that didn’t


Why it’s important

So why is user-centred design important? Very simply, it’s because people will go elsewhere if you don’t do it. We all have competitors and people don’t have the time anymore to read or find things that aren’t obvious.

I’m not sure if it’s a result of working in this industry or just getting older but I’m incredibly impatient with bad design these days. I was recently looking for a new online project planning tool for us to use and I realised that I was only giving each application about 10 minutes to impress me, If I couldn’t work out how to use it without reading the instructions, I’d abandon it and move onto the next one.

Techniques used in user-centred design

One of our designers describes UX as a toolkit - you have a set of techniques available to you and you use what’s appropriate to a particular project, client or situation. Often that approach changes as you get deeper into a project and get a better understanding of the market, the product or the users. That’s a very different approach to technology-led projects where you always follow a set methodology and that can be a challenge when dealing with companies who still see websites as IT projects and want to see a linear process.

If we are rebuilding or improving an existing site, one of the first things we look at is website analytics (Google Analytics etc). That gives us and our client an understanding of how people really use their site or product - is it the same as the way they intended them to? What pages do people look at? How long do they stay on a page? Where do they go next? This data then informs decisions on what currently works and what needs to change.

Personas are a technique we use to put content owners in the shoes of their users and make them think about the product from their viewpoint - clearly you can’t do user-centred design without knowing who your users are. We’ll work with clients to create profiles of typical users based on age, gender, job, income, technology etc and then expand them to try and understand what they want to find? what might put them off using the site. Those personas are then used throughout the design process when we develop user journeys and again when we do user testing, as they make sure the user remains at the heart of everything you do.


If you’ve worked on a website project, you’ve probably seen wireframes. They are used in the early stages of design to focus everyone’s attention on what content is most important, rather than diving straight into typography and colours - that’s based on behavioural insights like where people look first on a page and how long a line of text has to be before people struggle to read it. Typically wireframes are monochrome with no real text or images as it’s much easier to change things at this point, before you get deeper into the design process, or even worse, the development process.


We tend to find that some people really like them and understand the process but others struggle - and ask why we are showing them a load of grey boxes. Typically, wireframes then evolve into final page designs as you add the user interface (UI) elements and real content. 

User testing
User testing is the point in the project where you get to validate your design assumptions with real people who represent your various audiences. I worked on a corporate website project for a big company a couple of years ago where the design agency had tried to be a bit radical and used the mobile-style “hamburger” menu on the desktop view of the site. Unfortunately, having made that bold design decision, no one was sure about how it was supposed to work, so we spent a long time debating it with developers, designers and the client. When we tested it we discovered no one used it. They were ignoring the menu icon completely and either using the search function or scrolling to the bottom of the page and using the links there. So we changed it.

User testing can be done face-to-face, in focus groups, on the phone, or you can be really sophisticated and invest in lab-based user testing, using technology such as eye tracking to see what people are really looking at (which isn’t always what the science tells you they’re supposed to be looking at). Ideally you do it as early as possible with clickable wireframes and repeat it with the finished version and again after you’ve gone live.

Repeat repeat repeat

I want to finish by talking about the importance of iteration. This really is the most fundamental technique I’ve learned from working in this area. After you’ve finished a digital project, it’s vital you continue to test what you’ve done and continue to make improvements.

I know that every designer and every agency says this but so many people still don’t do it and I’m not really sure why. I think a lot of companies still see web development projects as one-off investments they have to do (slightly begrudgingly) every five or six years. I also suspect it’s because people are often too ambitious with what they initially build and then run out of energy at the end, which of course goes against all best practice of starting simply and building on it.

So if there’s one thing you should take away from this article it's this: no matter how long you spend scoping and designing something, you will never get it right first time. Design has to be an ongoing process.

Our guide to user-centred design graphic
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Frank Whiffen
Frank Whiffen
Frank is in the fortunate position of looking after marketing for a marketing agency. He has been agency side for ten years working across a range of sectors, from investor comms through to food and drink. Before that he marketed chocolate (whilst resisting the urge not to devour the stock).
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