Understanding User Centered Design Principles to Build a Successful Website
When designing a website, the external forces that sculpt the web design process are paramount. These include the client, the unique project requirements, and the changes and trends in web development technology and web design trends.
But there’s a new business strategy impacting the design phase that is taking over from these benchmarks when it comes to the real world scenarios that define what a truly functional website is. We’re talking about user centered web design. It’s what Google is looking for, and it’s what will help you meet users expectations.
This type of design revolves around the user, the tasks they execute, and how the user interacts with the website within the environment created for them. In other words, it addresses the whole user experience throughout the design and development process based on the complete design and fundamental principles that must remain consistent.
What Is User Centered Web Design?
User centered design as applied to websites is no different from the more widely used user centered design (UCD) concept. Regardless of the application, it is a set of processes and strategies that focus on putting users at the center of product (web) design and development.
Putting user requirements at the heart of your website means involving them from beginning to end (and beyond). This ensures that the website is relevant to your target audience and achieves your goals.
The Interaction Design Foundation explains user-centered design as follows:
“User-centered design (UCD) is an iterative design process in which designers and other stakeholders focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process. UCD calls for involving users throughout the design process via a variety of research and design techniques so as to create highly usable and accessible products for them.”
Although it sounds new, it’s not. Way back in 1986, Norman and Draper introduced us to the philosophy of user centered design in their comprehensive book on human-computer interaction.
The principles were originally aimed at product features in software and hardware. Now, the basics are applied to intelligent web design as well to create design solutions that cater to user needs in the digital space.
Not All Humans Are Your Users
There is, however, a slight difference in Norman and Draper’s approach that could more correctly be called ‘human centered design’. It implies that the product should be usable to all human user’s requirements.
User centered design, on the other hand, considers that not all humans will be your users. It calls for a laser focus on what your user needs and the unique ways in which they will interact with the elements on your website.
UCD considers that not everyone has the same motivations, habits, preferences, and patterns of behaviour. It’s based on target audience demographics (age, gender, social status, education, and professional background) and developing a user group or personas. The latter provides an understanding of emotions, behaviours, and beliefs. These help the design team in making better decisions about features and every user interaction in relation to business requirements.
User centered web design assumes that the group of people you design for will have a lot of these factors in common. As such, product designers need to get into the mindset of this subset – and offer new perspectives and solutions – to guide the user centered design process to make the product successful .
User-Centered Design Vs User Experience
UCD is not equal to user experience (UX). Although, they do go hand-in-hand, and when used together help guide the UCD process in the right direction.
The International Organization for Standardization defines UX as:
“A person’s perceptions and responses resulting from the use and/or anticipated use of a product, system or service”.
To understand the difference more clearly, consider that user centered design improves the user experience. It’s the backbone of the entire customer experience. It shows that the designer has a deep understanding of the end users’ preferences and usability needs at every touchpoint throughout the development process.
The mistake many companies make when strategizing their website design and development is prioritizing business goals over those of their users or target audience. So, they design the website first, and then expect their target audience to find and use it.
User centered design does the opposite. It considers the target audience from the very beginning of the web design process and uses their goals, needs, pain points, demographics, and more to guide the general phases of the design process. This ensures that the website design ends up with all the essential elements it needs to appeal to the right audience and thereby create a good user experience.
User Centered Design Is An Iterative Process
An iterative process means doing something over and over again with the aim to improve it. It’s the foundation of any user centered system design and often means you have to go back to the drawing board again and again until there are no more loose ends, ifs, ands, buts, or gaps. This process is used to refine everyday things through exploring many variations until it meets the user’s needs with near perfection. The same goes for website design, whether it’s a one-page site or an enterprise-level website.
Web designers use several tools and investigative methods to execute a user centered evaluation and develop an explicit understanding of the target users’ needs. These include surveys and end-user interviews as well as brainstorming with stakeholders and experts before entering the development phase.
The data is used to develop a set of user goals and requirements that the designer must meet to ensure those needs are satisfied.
This process of continuous refinement ensures a gradual enhancement from the early design stages. The steps (or phases as outlined below) enable designers to incorporate feedback from the client and user until the website attains an ideal usability level.
The phases of an iterative design process
As a springboard to user centered design, these are the essential phases to cover during the process of creating a user centered website:
- User and task requirements: how will the user use the website on both mobile and desktop?
- User research and persona development: who are the users and what do they want/need?
- Information architecture and interface design: how will designers develop solutions?
- Evaluating user interactions and doing usability testing against context and requirements
- Making iterations of these phases until all user centered design goals are met.
Why Is User Centered Design So Effective?
The magic of user centered design is it helps everyone involved in the process succeed at whatever role they play – be it marketing executive, developer, or user.
That sounds good, but businesses rightly ask whether all the effort of engaging various teams and producing different iterations is worth the investment. The answer is yes.
Usability.gov highlights the benefits of using user centered design for websites as follows:
- It improves the performance of the website by reducing the number of user errors. The website is easy to use and the user does not hit dead ends. Rather, they achieve what they came there for in a seamless and quick experiene.
- It increases exposure to the brand, service or product by increasing user metrics across the board. The most vital metrics are increased traffic and audience size, increased return visitors, increased new visitors, and increased visits from search. Exposure is maintained through the website’s ability to not only retain existing users but to attract new ones.
- It improves the credibility of the website and, hence, the user’s perception of the brand or product. Credibility can be measured in factors such as satisfaction, trust, and referrals.
- It reduces the burden on a company’s resources. Organizations find it ultimately brings down financial costs related to development, redesign, training, documentation, and website maintenance.
- It increases product or service sales through increased completed transactions.
When considering the top reasons why IT projects fail, Usability.gov highlights poor communication among customers, users, and developers as one of the greatest mistakes. Make sure you don’t fall into this trap!
User Centered Web Design Best Practices
User centered design can be achieved by considering some general rules and guidelines from the start of the design and development phase of a project. The most important factors are simplicity, consistency, relevancy, natural language, clear instructions, and feedback on completing an action.
Other important guidelines to follow to design user centered websites are:
Research and Analyze
Who is your target audience? Create personas to understand their tasks. Ask users questions through surveys and interview stakeholders and colleagues to make everyone feel valued and vested.
Map The Customer Journey
Understand how the system interlinks and takes the user on their journey, whether it’s to buying a product or reading a blog.
Customer journey mapping gives everyone a clear view of how one piece of content leads to another. Do a ‘tree test’ to examine the website structure. Test the most important pages and make sure they are where users think they should be.
A solid, consistent navigation structure and simple search are the best ways users can find your content regardless of where they are. If you want to keep your real estate clean, a site map is an easy way to discover all content.
Visuals And Layout
Use visual design to communicate tone and information. Use a mix of interesting and simple visuals, be conservative when using colour, and use visually prominent design and graphics to draw attention to the most vital elements.
Break web content up into easily-digestible chunks.
Usability testing is a valuable tool that allows you to watch users interact with your website. It provides insight into audience behaviour, showing you what they are drawn to, what they find confusing, and what makes them want to see more.
Instant Feedback For Users
Instant, clear feedback after a user completes an action is one of the cornerstones of a website based on user centered design.
It assures the user that whatever they did (whether it’s filling out a form or simply clicking a button), the action mattered, was registered, and initiated a change on the site.
Accessibility refers to users being able to find what they came to look for on your website quickly and without guesswork and clicking around.
This is enabled through a number of site functions and features. These include a basic search feature, attention to the way content is laid out on article pages (i.e., it is easy to scan for relevant information), as well as a site map at the bottom of all pages.
Don’t Forget About Mobile
It’s a fact that more people access the Internet via their mobile devices than from desktop computers. Considering the limited real estate available, the mobile user experience needs to align exactly with the needs and expectations of your target users.
Ensure you have good insights into actual users’ mobile behaviour, what they do on their mobile devices, and when and how they use it.
Important questions for mobile users:
- Why do they visit your website on mobile?
- What features do they use?
- What features are essential on mobile?
- What are the sources of frustration?
- What devices do they use?
Why Designers Should Focus on User-Centered Design
Following user centered design principles is the only path forward for businesses – big or small – to design and develop websites that work for them. UCD reduces abandonment and user frustration as it assists the user to complete necessary tasks on the website and helps them find what they’re looking for quickly and without friction.