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User-Centered Thinking at Every Step

09-14-22 Leah Henderson

Organizations, teams, and individual roles that commit to a user-centered design will enjoy better outcomes thanks to the intrinsic iterative nature of the process. But widespread buy-in is crucial to success.

In our ever-changing world, user-centered design is more important than ever. From the way we work and how we socialize to how we approach technology, the status quo just isn’t applicable anymore—it’s a relic of the past.

There’s no such thing as a typical experience or an average persona—one size does not fit all. Because of this, we have two unique methods for focusing on individuals using our products. The terms “user-centered” and “human-centered” are often used interchangeably, but there are slight differences between the two. Human-centered design focuses on human behaviors (emotions, psychology, and perception) while user-centered design is more focused on utilizing demographics to define a target audience.

Now more than ever, software development should be informed by one constant: the evolutionary nature (needs, priorities, experience, etc.) of the humans or users of the end product. As a result, we believe deeply in the value of user-focused problem-solving as an integral, pervasive component of all projects. If this mindset is going to yield results, team member buy-in has to be high, and that buy-in has to turn into consistent, thoughtful, iterative action.

Your user-focused thinking can’t just be big talk or good vibes, you’ve got to commit its implementation throughout your projects. From more user-centered development strategies to ensuring teams are committed to the concepts, we all have to remember that it is an outlook and a process that must be part of iterative design that we bring to every aspect of our work.

Here’s what we’ve learned.

The Iterative, User-Centered Process

A user-centered process typically includes four major phases that are repeated throughout the completion of a project. These phases detailed by The Interaction Design Foundation include understanding context, specifying requirements, designing solutions, and evaluating.

Understand context of use leads to specify user requirements leads to understand context of use leads to specify user requirements. Added loops back through the process from specify user requirements to each earlier stage.
When it comes to user-centered design, the approach should be iterative. This allows teams to focus on understanding users and their context at all stages of product development.

How each phase is completed and the focus of each step will differ throughout the completion of a project, but this cycle will continue until the evaluation of the results are satisfactory. Focusing on these phases will allow teams to make substantive improvements quickly and incrementally while avoiding costly reworks and will align outcomes with the user experience. By treating these steps as both a mindset and a process throughout your projects, you can:

  • Ensure that the user’s needs are understood and accounted for from the project’s onset, thus solving the correct problems

  • Provide team empathy and understanding of the needs the user may be experiencing while using the product

  • Verify initial assumptions to ensure that the user’s needs stay at the center of the solution created

  • Justify budget and team size by quantifying the ROI

  • Validate changes that were made throughout the sprint process

Team Member Buy-In

When it comes to user-centered thinking, you need pervasive buy-in from your organization and your team. This commitment not only ensures that user-centered thinking informs individual decision-making, but it also makes sure it is integrated into every step of your project.

In an ironic twist, you can leverage existing expertise from your team to increase the buy-in amongst other roles. User Experience practitioners are not only practitioners of user-centered problem solving, they can ideally serve as champions of the approach. Your friendly neighborhood UX specialist might be the perfect person to help explain how each role can leverage this mindset and how each individual can benefit from the approach.

User Experience Design (UXD) is based on the idea that designing should be about the way people have experiences—for example, a device is only a small part of the whole picture. Because of this, team members focused on UX are best positioned to demonstrate the benefits of this thinking. Make use of this.

The comparison between UXD and user-centered design, however, is not one-to-one. User experience is an umbrella term that can cover several job types and steps within the process. As such, it is important for everyone to understand how different roles can uniquely leverage the user-centered mindset.

One small note: job titles can be full of industry jargon and company culture. So instead of focusing on titles, we’re going to focus on roles within an organization.

The Planner

Managers, Directors, Project Leaders

The Planner of any project always has the not-so-simple task of keeping a team informed, aligned, and efficient. They must balance this with budget and timeline constraints to help confirm that the team is moving forward. As each project has a unique set of hurdles, the need for a user-centered approach is paramount. When project planners lay the foundation of the UX process, it allows for a user-focused mindset from the onset of a project. This ultimately provides stronger data and an accurate baseline to help predict where a product needs to go or to validate the steps that need to be taken.

As with other team members, The Planner that buys into user-centered thinking can help shorten the feedback and revision loop between request and execution. This ultimately allows for testing (and the voice of their end user) to come through. In the end, estimates are more accurate and trust is built among team members.

The Planner that commits to user-centered thinking is more likely to…

  • Deliver personalized experiences that users will seek out and use

  • Bridge the gap between user-driven discoveries and product needs

  • Improve ROI by reducing the amount of support required and elevating user buy-in.

  • Increase up-front understanding, leading to cost estimates and timeline predictions

  • Allow for improved prioritization when balancing product needs and financial viability with user needs and overall goals

  • Boost competitiveness of the product as users will find benefit in it

  • Mitigate project risk as the work is completed in small cycles

For The Planner, this means being able to deliver personalized experiences that users will seek out and use. Because of the increased user understanding of their mindset and needs, post-launch support costs are lower—materials created more narrowly for the intended audience are more intuitive to use.

The Strategist

Strategist, Researcher, or Data Analyst

These team members may have experience with user experience (and therefore user-centered design) since research is foundational to both. The Strategist is constantly gathering feedback as a means of improving a product throughout its life cycle. As a result, they often build empathy with users and help craft recommendations for next steps in testing and evaluation. The Strategist is present throughout the product journey and is perfectly positioned to advocate for user-centered thinking every step of the way.

The Strategist that commits to user-centered thinking is more likely to…

  • Improve data collection to validate assumptions

  • Provide better direction and understanding of user tasks

  • Build a clearer understanding of the user’s environment and use case for products

  • Have the ability to justify the project requirements

  • Construct a broader understanding of, and empathy for, the full user experience

  • Contextualize use and user requirements

  • Help define the internal documentation so all team members benefit from the findings

Depending on the length of a given project and its scale, this monitoring and gathering of data should continue to confirm that the team takes changes in user needs or preferences into account.

The Creator

Visual, UX, UI, or Product Designer

Creatives drive a product’s visual direction and are accustomed to working with UX deliverables that reflect user-centered thinking. These individuals commonly participate in the UX process’s ideation, prototyping, and testing phases and can adapt to user-centered thinking quickly.

In an organization that commits to user-centered thinking, creative testing and ideation are grounded in fact—the impulse to rely on opinions and what we think is best can be avoided. The Creator has the ability to validate design, taxonomy, flow, and content decisions with true feedback. The work can—and should—rely on actual users to provide direction which ultimately speeds up approvals and project alignment. With these small feedback loops, The Creator has a stronger understanding of what will be needed in the final product.

The Creator that commits to user-centered thinking is more likely to…

  • Establish a baseline for usability

  • Quickly validate new ideas before investing in development

  • Clearly document design solutions and how they connects to the user’s needs

  • Increase clarity and focus of design features

  • Confirm accessibility checks before development

  • Build open team communication, allowing for a stronger understanding of design decisions and requirements

These benefits allow The Creator to narrow in on the adjustments needed and problem-solve within a more focused direction. Instead of living in an “it’s just not working” feedback loop, user-centered testing gives The Creator insight into what is and isn’t working. This narrows their attention to specific areas or functionality adjustments, allowing for quicker, more efficient revisions.

The Implementer

Developer, Front-End Designer, Technology Lead

The Implementer—or builder of the work—needs to be able to trust that what is being built is the best solution possible. Changes and interactions during the build phase are time-consuming and costly, so validating the work before this step is vital. With a user-centered approach, not only will the work be validated, but The Implementers are involved in (and privy to) the process from the beginning. They know what has been tested, the results of those tests, and (like their creative team members) they have a stronger understanding of the needed tasks and priorities.

The Implementer that commits to user-centered thinking is more likely to…

  • Reduce iterations needed to achieve a positive outcome by following The Creator’s validated explorations

  • Enable more effective sprints as the previous testing rounds allowed for the iterative heavy lifting

  • Establish accessibility as a focus from the onset and not an afterthought—this leads to producing work that will be effective for all users

  • Build a common understanding of the vision and project goal

  • Improve documentation on requirements before implementation

Having a user-centered approach doesn’t guarantee that all problems will have been solved by the time a project is being built, but rather that the work is not repeated. When relying on feedback and data, the justification for what should be included as a priority in each sprint or delivery becomes more clear. The iterations become less about changing the functionality—something that should have already been worked out by this stage thanks to user-focused thinking—and more about how to continually evolve a product that delights the user.

Testing Leads to User Engagement

On any software development project, team members from many disciplines and backgrounds must work together as a team. Asking the full team to adopt a user-centered approach strengthens collaboration among colleagues as well as increases buy-in from the target audience. When all of these team members work together in this, guessing is minimized and everyone on the project can track user behavior and preference changes in real-time. Personal opinions are set aside as much as possible and empathy-based solutions take center stage.

Of course, all this harmony and ROI require you to have the right team members in place. Often, this means originating a user experience team or expanding the one that you already have. For folks who don’t have deep UX backgrounds, this can be easier said than done. One size UX professional does not fit all. You’ll need to think carefully about the skillset you want to add to your team, justify the position, and then open the door to what will certainly be an interesting and enlightening series of conversations with a variety of candidates.

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Katie Jennings

Vice President of Business Development