7 User-Centered Design Principles

Camren Browne, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

User-centered design (UCD) has been gaining popularity in the product development world as of late. The benefits of this design process are being seen by a variety of industries. Yet, it can be difficult for organizations to shift from traditional design methods and ideologies and adopt a more user-focused approach. Having a solid understanding of UCD, what it is, why it’s beneficial, and what the main concepts are can be a game-changer for companies looking to adopt this ground-breaking design approach. 

To help break down the main idea behind user-centered design, we’ve created this guide to the seven main user-centered design principles and what things to keep in mind during the process. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. What is UCD?
  2. Seven user-centered design principles
  3. Why does user-centered design matter?
  4. Key takeaways

Let’s get started!

1. What is UCD?

User-centered design is a collection of iterative design processes that focus on the user’s needs at each step in order to design an enjoyable solution to a problem. In UCD, design choices are heavily influenced by the user’s expectations, goals, and desires. Furthermore, users are quite involved in the whole process from beginning to end. User-centered design principles go beyond just designing for the user, and gets designers creating products alongside the user. This approach usually takes the form of user research, interviews, usability testing, and tons of feedback collection.

User-centered design usually follows this four-step process:

  • Understand the user 
  • Specify requirements
  • Design solutions
  • Evaluate and iterate

The ultimate goal of the UCD process is to design a product that has been so tailored to the user and what they need that interacting with it is effortless. UCD helps designers identify their user’s problems and allows them to design solutions their users will find value in and look forward to using. 

2. Seven user-centered design principles

Now that we’ve looked at what UCD is, let’s get into the important concepts to keep in mind when starting out. It’s common to find principles in the world of UX design, as the Interactive Design Foundation agrees, referring to them as “widely applicable laws, guidelines, biases and design considerations” to guide designers. We’ve broken the process down into the following seven key user-centered design principles.

Understand the context of use and user needs

Before getting started on a new project, it’s paramount to understand who the users are, what problems they need solved, and how and when they will be interacting with the product. Why do the users need this product? In what environment will the users be interacting with it? What expectations do they have? What are their behaviors and characteristics? Understanding the user and how they’ll engage with the product is the driving force behind user-centered design. 

Early and frequent involvement of users 

In UCD, the earlier and more frequently the users are being involved in the design process the better. Early involvement ensures designers are getting a clear picture of who their users are and what solutions they need designed.

Frequent interviewing, user testing, and user feedback collection helps designers verify their work and make certain their designs are going to be useful to the customer. Because the users are constantly analyzing, critiquing, and guiding the design choices, projects that employ the UCD process are often very flexible, malleable, and evolve over time. 

Keep it simple, clear, and consistent

A product designed using the UCD process will be easy for the user to interact with and reduces unnecessary mental effort. One of the best ways to achieve this is by keeping the designs simple, clear, consistent. This means using understandable and plain language, keeping the way interface elements behave consistent, and only including information that is relevant to the task. Many designers will rely on usability heuristics and mental models to keep their designs consistent to what the user may expect or have already encountered. 

Provide intuitive navigation

Being able to quickly learn how a product works and navigate through it with ease is an important part of user-centered design. Adequate navigation cues, user onboarding, easily viewable page indicators or scroll bars, and effective menus are all ways designers make interacting with a product effortless and intuitive. Users should be able to follow a clear path through the app while performing their intended task. If they become sidetracked or enter an unintended area, obvious back or cancellation buttons should be present. 

Offer assistance and feedback

A good designer can foresee where a user might get hung up when using their product or where friction may occur. In response to this, it’s good practice to provide tool tips, relevant and simple pop-ups, and positive reinforcement wherever needed. These features help users know they are on the right track. 

Links to help pages should be easily reachable and the language used should be plain, sequential, and task-oriented. Furthermore, animations, loading screens, and “task complete” pages should be utilized to reassure the user the task is in process or has been achieved. 

Employ a user-centric approach to product delivery 

Oftentimes a designer’s work does not stop once the final product has been designed. Many designers are called upon to improve product delivery practices. The UCD process can be applied to not only the service itself but how it is purchased, installed, updated, or even deleted or cancelled.

Giving the users a good experience before they even open the app or product can help give them a better impression of the brand or company. It can also put them in a more relaxed state when finally engaging with it. Furthermore, a product that is hassle-free to repair or cancel can make it more likely a user will purchase from the same company in the future. 

Utilize an iterative design process 

Even if the user’s needs have been considered from the beginning of the design cycle to the very end, it’s likely that once the product is released, there will still be user feedback that needs to be collected and integrated into future designs. Once the user-centered design steps have been completed, designers will reassess their designs, gather more user insight, and iterate on their final product.

As a result of this, the UCD process extends beyond when a product has been put on the market. It’s also used to guide and inform subsequent re-designs and upgrades, ensuring the best possible product for users. 

3. Why does user-centered design matter?

Empathy is at the heart of quality design, and the UCD process is great at cultivating an understanding of and sensibility to the user. By keeping the customer involved in the creative process, designers can create products that are sure to satisfy their users and therefore reduce time and money needed for redesign or troubleshooting. 

Furthermore, a product tailored to the users will likely result in higher overall customer satisfaction, increased user engagement, company sales, and creating an improved brand perception. It also ensures that you are designing inclusively, a key factor in the world of UX design. This video helps you learn more about how to design inclusively:

Not only do user-centered design principles help give customers an exceptional product to use, but they also helps with employee productivity and keeping team members on the same page. Working towards fulfilling the user’s needs gives designers, developers, and high-level executives a common goal to work towards. With clear objectives, you can spend less time guessing about design choices or designing unnecessary features and more time creating exactly what the user wants. 

4. Key takeaways

UCD can seem like an elusive process for companies and design organizations to take on. But, by keeping the main user-centered design principles in mind, designers and businesses can stay focused on creating optimal, user-friendly products that people look forward to using.

The true art of the UCD process comes when an organization can balance the needs of the user with business requirements for the company. Sticking to the above principles while keeping overall company objectives in mind is often a formula for success when it comes to creating a highly desirable, successful product that helps an organization achieve their long-term goals. 

Further reading

If you’re interested in reading more about user-centered design principles and UX design in general, check out these articles:

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