User-Centred Design – But How Do We Know What the Users Want? | Methodology

"In User-Centred Design, designers are not designing for users, they are designing with them. They find out what the users want instead of just trying to solve the problem from their own perspective and personal bias and giving people designs they think the users need. In a User-Centred Design approach, design decisions are based on a deep and profound user understanding.”
Klöcker, L., Pavlova, D., Zeng, Q. (2020, November 30). User-Centred Design (1) [Audio podcast episode]. In Introduction to Design Thinking.

But how do designers know what users want? How do they get a deep and profound user understanding?

This blog post will introduce four different methods that designers use to get closer to the needs and desires of their target group.


Usually, interviews are employed at the beginning and (or) at the end of the product lifecycle. However, when they are implemented at the beginning of the lifecycle they are serving other purposes than at the final stage.

Generally, the intention of interviews is to get a deeper understanding of the user and the area of interest (Baxevanis, 2006). Essentially, in individual interviews, the researcher (in the role of the interviewer) gets the opportunity to get to know the users and understand them in detail.

In this manner, the researcher can learn about the user’s thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and desires (“Individual Interviews”, n.d.). Moreover, a popular exercise during the interview sessions is to present the interviewee with a website – as for example Amazon and Zalando – and ask them how often they visit these to get insights into their behavior and habits on (other) websites (Preece et al., 2015). Besides this, there are three forms in which interviews can be conducted:

– Firstly, an interview can be structured. In this case, the interviewer asks the interviewee a set of closed questions.

– Secondly, there is the open interview – the interview asks very open question in the form of “Tell me something about x”, and,

– Thirdly, there is the possibility of semi-structured interviews in which the interviewer prepares questions in advance but is free in skipping some questions, asking follow-up questions, and generally improvising.

Moreover, the interviewer is flexible regarding the set-up of the interview: It can be face-to-face, via phone, or video conference: This means that COVID-19 restrictions and limitations do not keep researchers from getting their data (“Individual Interviews”, n.d.). Whereas these interviews, in which the focus rather lies on the general needs and desires of the user, are employed at the beginning of the product life cycle, other interview forms can take place at the end-stage. In those interviews it is the intention to get the user’s opinion and user satisfaction concerning the product (Abras et al., 2004).

There are resources like where you can learn more about contextual interviews and how they can be cleverly combined with usability testing, which will be explained later.

The following video provides a helpful step-by-step-guide for conducting interviews in a User-Centred Design approach:


Whereas interviews are mostly conducted in a one-to-one setting and involve a lot of dedication to a single user, questionnaires are a good method to get data from a big sample of users. In contrast to (open or semi-structured) interviews, questionnaires consist of firm and pre-defined questions. The answers researchers receive can provide them with statistical data to refine their personas (explanation provided in the next section) or their product (Baxevanis, 2006). Another advantage of questionnaires is that users who are in remote locations or cannot attend an interview session for other reasons can also be included (Preece et al., 2015). Moreover, questionnaires in form of online surveys can benefit the researchers as they are able to generate data from a big user sample whilst keeping the costs low (“Online Surveys”, n.d.).

When interviews and questionnaires are combined, the questionnaires could be used to confirm assumptions developed during the individual interview sessions (Preece et al., 2015). Similar to the interview sessions, the questionnaires can also be employed at the beginning or the end of the product lifecycle. When questionnaires are used at the beginning their goal should be to learn about the user’s needs and desires and contribute to defining the persona. However, when questionnaires are intended to be used at the final stage of the product lifecycle, the focus should be on the user’s satisfaction with the prototype (“Online Surveys”, n.d.).


As we have learned so far, in a User-Centred Design approach (in the following referred to as “UCD”), the user is the central figure. However, one problem that goes along with UCD is the notion of “user”. Gerry McGovern observes (as cited in Adlin & Pruitt, 2006, p. 7):

"'User' is a catchall and ultimately a mean-nothing word. It reflects a technology-centric, rather than a people-centric, view of the Web.”
Gerry McGovern

This quote makes clear that the term “user” does not do justice to the different complex figures and personalities behind this word. The term “user” can refer to everyone and does not give an appropriate description of target audiences. However, to approach UCD successfully, designers must know who they mean when talking about users – and this should never be “everyone”. Nevertheless, many products are designed to attract as many people as possible. As a consequence, those products with broad target audiences that are intended to please everyone will make nobody completely happy and will potentially lead to bad designs.

To avoid this, it has been recognized that it might be a better method to restrict to a set of pre-defined user profiles. And this is where personas come into play:

Personas, also called user characters (Case, 2013), are clearly defined, concrete and specific representations of the target groups in question (Adlin & Pruitt, 2006) that resemble one another in their behavior, needs, skills, and attitudes (Babich, 2019). They enable designers to focus on the right users in order to create tailored products. Vice versa, they also define who is not the target user. What makes personas so effective is that they take away the anonymity of “the user” described above. Rather, they bring users into life (Babich, 2019), and give them a face and history. In most cases, three to seven personas are created (Case, 2013). Each of those characteristics are based on data the researchers gained from, for example, interviews or questionnaires. Typically, those personas are provided with names, photographs as well as motivations and goals (“UX Methods Banks”, n.d.). Through personas the designers develop a more user-focused attitude. Moreover, they make the knowledge about their users explicit and generate interest and empathy towards them (Adlin & Pruitt, 2006).

This might then look like this: 

Static overlay
Man with glasses
Persona 1

Claus, 54 years old, Business Manager

Family status: Married, two kids

Motivation: Success

Goals: To learn more every day

Skills: Languages

Desire: Education

Hobbies: Reading, traveling, playing golf

Static overlay
Persona 2

Marco, 31 years old, teacher

Family status: Single

Motivation: Educating his students

Goals: To be a good teacher

Skills: Very good writer

Desires: Become better every day

Hobbies: Football, reading

Persona 2
Static overlay
Persona 3
Persona 3

Laura, 23 years old, medicine student

Family status: Engaged

Motivation: Helping people

Goals: To become a successful doctor

Skills: Mathematics

Desires: Become better every day

Hobbies: Soccer, dancing

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Usability Testing

While the creation of personas is a rather passive process, it is important to keep active contact with the user group in question – even after the interviews. But before diving into the matter of usability testing, I will shortly explain what is exactly meant by the well-known but often not questioned concept of “usability”:

According to Chisnell & Rubin (2008), “what makes something usable is the absence of frustration in using” (p. 4). Furthermore, the product should be useful, efficient, effective, satisfying, learnable, and accessible.

The method of usability testing can be employed in every stage of the product lifecycle (Chisnell & Rubin, 2008). However, the tools that are used differ from stage to stage. In the end, the ultimate goal of usability testing is – of course – to make the product more usable

How is usability tested?

At the very beginning, a research question or a research objective is formulated that will then be observed in the testing process. Naturally, the target user remains in focus while testing usability. Therefore, a sample of target users is chosen to evaluate the usability of the product. The sample users review the product and give ideas for possible improvements ( Chisnell & Rubin, 2008). Usability testing can also include the observation of the following points defined by Abras et al. (2004):

– Time users need to learn a specific function

– Speed of task performance

– Type and rate of errors by users

– User retention of commands over time.

Next to this, other tasks could include:

– “Think aloud techniques” – users are required to explicitly articulate all steps of their actions

– Videotaping – as a review method

– Interviews and user satisfaction questionnaires – evaluation of user experience in order to deepen their understanding of the user (Abras et al., 2004).

When should we do this?

As shortly mentioned before, the method of usability testing can be employed in every stage of the product lifecycle. The first stage of usability testing can be employed before the actual product has been deployed. Its goal is to get feedback as early as possible to assure a user-friendly product before the actual implementation (Chisnell & Rubin, 2008). As there is no real product that could be used in action, mostly paper mock-ups are used. When the prototype is produced, the second testing session starts. The third stage of testing follows once the product interface is finished: Does the product match with the usability criteria set at the beginning (Abras et al., 2004)?

However, even when the product is finished, this is not where the usability testing ends. It is recommendable that designers keep involving the users in form of focus groups and interviews. The advantage is that engineers and designers can keep track of the product’s usability and user satisfaction in order to react and improve the product if necessary (Abras et al., 2004). Even though usability testing can be used in every state of the product lifecycle, each stage asks for different approaches and methods (Chisnell & Rubin, 2008).

There is one major advantage of usability testing: Despite the fact that usability testing seems to be an extensive process it definitely pays off in the end and can decrease follow-up costs. Find out more about the advantages of UCD in this blog post. For an interesting case study click here


This blog post has introduced four different methods that can be used in a User-Centered Design approach. Even though they are employed at different stages of the product lifecycle and serve different purposes at each stage, they all have the same goal: To create a usable product that users find useful, efficient, effective, satisfying, learnable, and accessible – a product users love.


Abras, C., Maloney-Krichmar, D., & Preece, J. (2004). User-centered design. Bainbridge, W. Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications37(4), 445–456

Adlin, T., Pruitt, J. (2006). Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design. Morgan Kaufman Publishers.

Babich, N. (2019, October 18). User Centered Design Principles & Methods. Adobe.,requirements%2C­%20objectives%2C%20and%20feedback

Baxevanis, A. (2006, May 1). User-centred design: 6 popular UCD methods. Inviqa.

CareerFoundry. (2019, April 18). How To Conduct User Interviews Like A Pro (UX Design) [Video]. YouTube.

Case, K. (2013). Tools for User-Centred Design. Advanced Engineering Forum, 10, 28-33.

Chisnell, D., Rubin, J. (2008). Handbook of Usability Testing: How to Plan, Design, and Conduct Effective Tests. Wiley Publishing.]

Contextual Interviews. (n.d.).

Individual Interviews. (n.d.).

Online Surveys. (n.d.).

Preece, J., Sharp, H., Rogery, Y. (2015). Interaction Design: beyond human-computer interaction. Wiley.

UX Methods Banks. (n.d.). UX Mastery.

UX Methods Bank

3 Responses

  1. […] and instructive concept of User-Centered Design (UCD)! So far, we know what UCD is and what methods can be used in a UCD approach. Moreover, you are introduced to two very interesting case studies: […]

  2. […] Click Here! you can find more about what designers do to find out our need From Lisa! Share this: […]

  3. […] Thank you for reading this blog post, so far you know about the concept by positive outcome of User Centred Design, but if you want to found out more about the  bad outcome of UCD you can read the blog post of my colleague  Qinwen and her trilling experience For last as a collaboration between our podcast and those two interesting case studies Lisa’s blog post it will introduce you to the Advantages and Disadvantages of UCD.… […]

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