1 User Centered Design

Sunday 24 June 2007
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Definition and Scope

Wikipedia defines User-Centered Design as follows:

    User-centered design (UCD) is a design philosophy and a process in which the needs, wants, and limitations of the end user of an interface or document are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.

This definition limits the scope to design of an "interface or document". A few paragraphs later the Wikipedia article likewise limits the scope to "software designers", and indicates that this definition follows the ISO standard 13407 on "Human-centered design processes for interactive systems", published in 1999. (See the following links: Description of ISO 13407, Diagram of ISO 13407).

One has to read further down the Wikipedia page to discover that the scope of user-centered design is in fact much wider:

    While user-centered design is often viewed as being focused on the development of computer and paper interfaces, the field has a much wider application. The design philosophy has been applied to a diverse range of user interactions, from car dashboards to service processes such as the end-to-end experience of visiting a restaurant, including interactions such as being seated, choosing a meal, ordering food, paying the bill etc.

In short, it seems that the user-centered design philosophy can be applied to the design of just about anything.


User-centered design according to Donald Norman

The term "user-centered design" was invented by Donald A. Norman in his 1986 book "The Design of Everyday Things" (originally called "The Psychology of Everyday Things"). In this book, Norman used the term "user-centered design" to describe design based on the needs of the user, leaving aside what he considered to be secondary issues like aesthetics. Norman later recognised that aesthetics could also be considered part of the needs of the user, and he corrected his initial overly-reductive approach in a later publication "Emotional Design". Another author, Patrick Jordan, explicitly suggested in "Designing Pleasurable Products" that different forms of pleasure should be included in the user-centered approach.

Donald Norman’s official website is at this link:

Donald Norman’s website


Basic principles of user-centered design

Human centered design was summed up by Norman in a 2002 interview as follows:

    Human centered design starts by watching people. In other words, start with people, their needs, and their behavior. The technology comes second. In addition, it means iterative design, where early sketches are tested, then refined and further tested, with this design-test-refine cycle continuing to the very end.

In user-centered design the designers try to analyze how users are likely to use an interface. They then test the validity of their assumptions in real world tests with actual users. Thus user-centered design tries to design the user interface based on how people can, want, or need to work, rather than forcing the users to change how they work to accommodate the system or function.

In user-centered design, the user’s overall series of interactions with the product is called "user experience". In product design, this is also referred to as the "out of the box experience," referring to all tasks the user must complete, from first opening of the shipped package, through unpacking, reading the directions, assembly, first use, and continuing use.

More complete description of the key principles of user-centered design is given at the following link:

UCD at usabilitynet


Variations on the UCD Approach

Since user-centered design requires studying the behaviour of the future users of the systems, various approaches have been developed which involve the active participation of real users. These variations include:

  • Cooperative design: involvement of designers and users on an equal footing. This is a Scandinavian tradition in the design of Information Technology products, which has been evolving since 1970.
  • Participatory design (PD): a North American term for the same concept, inspired by Cooperative Design, focusing on the participation of users.
  • Contextual design : "customer centered design” in the actual context, including some ideas from PD

All these approaches follow the ISO 13407 standard on "Human-centered design processes for interactive systems".


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