What is User-centered Design?
We all have the experience of using a product that relieves us of frustration, of confusion, of a sense of helplessness. To create a product like this, User-centered design, an iterative design process that prioritizes users’ needs in every stage of designing, offers designers various methods to deeply analyze and understand users’ needs that sometimes users themselves do not realize. What are the methods designers use? Let’s have a look
To help designers discover users’ behaviors, understand their interests and learn their motives and true needs, designers could conduct surveys and interviews to expected users, create personas of users in different scenarios, or observe them in real situations.
To involve users in the designing process, to make them feel more attached to the product, designers could set up workshop and invite target users to use the prototype product, and to give feedback and suggestions.
Applying The Method Step by Step
Many may think this design process very helpful if they want to design something that really fulfills users’ need. Yet, they have doubts too, because some ideas may sound promising in theory but disappointing in practice. Therefore, they need proofs and first hand experiences to test its usability.
Our team, Lisa, Desi, and me, made a 10 minutes podcast to introduce user-centered design by implementing the methods of it into our podcast making process. Here’s how we make it:
Step 1: Who will be the users?—Know our target users
Users are our priority. Therefore, to design a product, we first need to know who will be our target users. In our case, this 10 minutes podcast was made in a university environment, so we decided to target on our fellow students. Our projected users can be bachelors, masters, or Phd students who would find it interesting to learn this approach and may consider applying this approach to their studies or research projects.
We also need to have in mind that our potential users/listeners may not have heard of this approach, may generally know what it is, or may have already known and used it. So, as the product is going to be a one episode only podcast, our team agreed that we need to make it beginner friendly. The goal of our podcast is to make those who do not know much about the concept to form a structural idea of the concept.
Step2: What users need?—Group Interview
Group interview is more efficient than individual interview because it allows us interview multiple users at the same time. Once we know who our projected users are, we need to go to them, to talk to them, and to find out what are their needs? What aspects of User-centered approach they would like to know?
So, we did a group interview with our classmates who, at the time being interviewed, know little of the concept. While Desi being the interviewer, Lisa and I take notes. These are the questions we asked:
1.Ask for general knowledge
How much do you know of User-centered design approach in general ? (Desi took around 1 minute to introduce the topic after interviewees gave their answers)
2.Ask for interests
What are the aspects you find this approach interesting?
3.Doubts and uncertainties
What aspects would make you have a second thought on the approach?/ What could be the potential drawbacks?
4. Need for persuasive evidences (eg. s)
To kill your doubts, what kinds of successful evidence or proofs do you want to be known of?
5. How would you apply UCD into your own study/work?
Based on the information we gathered from the interview, we then knew that most of our interviewees found the idea of “designing with” instead of “designing for” interesting, and they would like to apply methods such as ethnography and interview into their own studies.
However, they thought that the designers may still fail to meet users’ needs in the final product even if users were involved. Time, money, and privacy that this method entails worry them too.
Step3: Storyboard for our podcast
In design process, visualizing the product by creating a storyboard is helpful for designer to discuss, design and assign tasks. With the help of the interview, we had a better profile about our users, yet, it is impossible to cover all our users’ concerns and expectations in a 10 minute podcast. Therefore, after our brainstorming session, we decided to raise users’ interests by focusing on the key concepts and principles of UCD.
With this in mind we planned our storyboard on Jamboard, slicing the 10 minutes into 8 pieces (Opening music, introduction to the team, scenarios narrative etc. ). We then set deadlines to tasks (script writing, recording and editing) before our usability testing workshop.
Step4: Usability Testing—Workshop Activities
Usability testing can be implemented in every design stage. Designers could chose a sample users to use the prototype and give feedback. This allows designers to make improvements to the final products. This also gives users a feeling that they are designing with the designers and they may feel attached to the final product.
We held a usability workshop and had two activities designed to engage users to give feedback. Our prototype was not a recorded podcast but some stickers. This is fine because, like the case of storyboard, prototype does not mean the real product, it could be a paper model or just a wireframe.
The first activity is a rearranging game designed to test if the podcast structure and sliced sections our team agreed on correspond to our users’ perception. Our participants were very engaged in the game and gave us useful feedback and suggestions.
I prepared two sets of stickers (blue and pink), each sticker represented one of the sliced sections of our podcast(from our storyboard). I shuffled the stickers. Then I gave them to two user groups and had them discussed and arranged the sticker on the table in an order that they believed was logical.
After the reordering, I asked them to write down the anticipated time allocations that they thought would be appropriated to each section. In the final step, I gave each group some extra stickers of different color, and encouraged them to write down suggestions to the current structure and content. For example, adding more background music is one of the suggestions we received from both groups.
Since questionnaire helps designer gain a statistical data to refine their product, our second activity was a mini questionnaire conducted by Lisa to help us on the selection of Opening music. It turned out that our users were not satisfied with the music options, meaning that we needed to find alternatives. Even if the problem was not solved, we still find the result helpful in a way that pushed us to work harder.
Restrained by the limited time, we finalized our podcast after the workshop and did not ran the iteration process as user-centered suggested. Since I was the one who did the audio editing and planned the most of the podcast structure, I used their suggestions as reference to modify the final product.
If you have reached here and find the step by step description of UCD method in designing our podcast useful, here is our final podcast and you will find out more about the design concept.
A Critical Review of The Approach
You may or may not find the podcast satisfying or our design process persuading. Indeed, critical thinking should be part of every thing we do. The following I will share drawbacks of the approach I found when making the podcast.
In our podcast, we presented a scenario of an unpleasant product that did not put its users’ experience to their design priorities. Our team member, Desi, shared her travel experience in London. The place she stayed had a different type of water system. The hot and cold water taps are separated, which means users could get either freezing water or hot water.
In case you are curious of what the water taps look like, here’s the picture of them.
From a traveler’s perspective, the separated water taps in the old London households were seen as something cultural at first. Maybe, one would imagine, the English enjoyed this burn or freeze experience just as the Halloween spirit of treat or trick. However, after a few minutes of googling, I realized that it was not cultural but technical.
When designing the water taps, designers have to come up with a solution of having two separated taps. This is because the hot water comes from an insanitary cistern that is kept in the loft, while the cold one comes from the main supply system which is good to drink. If mixing them into the same tap, chances of contaminating the drinking water are very high.
You may wonder, why not conduct user-centered practice to design a new water system so we can avoid forcing ourselves to use unpleasant products like the water taps?
In fact, what contributes to its strengths can also be its weakness. Even though the designing process and the content of the podcast both highlight how user centered design helps designers to come up with ideas to design a product that meets the needs of users perfectly. To conduct the whole process in real life can be time and money consuming.
The first trouble-maker of this approach is one of the key concepts of UCD, iteration. In order to achieve an ideal product, designers usually need to go over the process cycle of analyzing, planning and testing multiple times. In our case, we only did our podcast with one cycle in a short time period.
In addition, as the definition of an ideal product can vary among different designers, a product can be both flawless and problematic within the same designing team, which might lead to another round of iteration and prolong the whole developing process. (our team only has three designers so we were very harmonious) This repetitive process can be tiring to the team members, and sometimes it may be frustrating too as the end product may turn out to be a Sisyphus’s boulder.
Cross disciplinary communication can be an issue as well. In our podcast conversation, Lisa pointed out that in a User Centered Design process, inviting experts from different areas could incite creative and innovative ideas that could effectively solve problems when designing a new product.
Yet, this costly cross disciplinary cooperation may look promising in concept but dispiriting in practice. As one of the prerequisites of a sound cooperation is effective communication between different parties, experts from various areas are required not only to master their own expertise but also skills of a diplomat or a public speaker. Otherwise their ideas cannot be properly conveyed.
Moreover, as they come from different academic backgrounds, there would be countless briefing and explaining concepts to their coworkers which may slowdown the whole program. When planning our podcast, even though we are students of the same program, misunderstandings in communication occurred too when we were making plans for the structure and content.
As we kept mentioning in the podcast, users are a key element in UCD and they are supposed to “design” the product with designers. Yet, problems can occur in this highlighted characteristic of UCD. One may happen during the stage of data collecting.
As users can be divided into primary users who actually use the artifact; secondary users who will occasionally use the artifact or use it through an intermediary; and tertiary users who will be affected or make decision about its purchase, thus, to avoid bias, data gathered from different types of users need to be analyzed separately.
But, how to distinguish user type and in what proportion each data is going to be used in product development can be vague and lead to dissatisfaction and bias in the final artifact. Yet, even though the data are balanced, users could still feel unsatisfied if they find the final product is not exactly like how they imagined.
When editing the podcast, I took users’ suggestions as reference, but I did not change everything and as a matter of fact, I kept most of the original part. I can imagine users who took part in the usability testing workshop will not be happy when they listen to this podcast and find out that their advice was ignored.
Money is the last and determining issue. As we already know that User-centered design requires iteration, expert groups, user participants and it is a long term process. It will be very costly. Investors would be reluctant to pay for a future product that still has a potential to fail.
We applied the design method to our podcast design in a school environment, so we don’t need to pay our interviewees and ourselves and we lose nothing if we fail to interest our users. Situations cannot be the same outside university.
To Sum up, User Centered Design is nice as it tilts over to the user’s perspective and experience, yet, before conducting this approach, researchers need to be aware of the aforementioned potential downsides of it.