What is ‘user-centred’ exactly?

Terms such as User Experience (UX) and user-centred design (UCD) are commonly used but are not universally or consistently applied.  For example, these terms are often used as a synonym for usability, user interface design, interaction design, information architecture and accessibility, or as an umbrella term for all or many of these concepts.  Ask people working in the space occupied by these terms what being user-centred means to them and you tend to get vague or simplistic explanations along the lines of ‘understanding user’s needs’.  This isn’t their fault particularly – the reality is it’s a term that struggles for a clear definition.

Instead of arguing what the correct definition is for user experience design or being user-centred, we need to define the discipline, its purpose and value within the context of the hosting organisation and its work.   To do this, the titles applied to roles such as UX designer, Business Analyst or Product Owner are less important than the competencies they can and need to bring to projects in providing a user-centred approach.

The organisations we tend to work with develop highly transactional services and websites and often have a great deal of technical expertise in delivering these.  But in delivering these services, sufficient weight is not always given to the more functional aspects of IT, which presents those of us concerned with user-centred design with a clear opportunity.

As discussed in the article Business analysis and user experience at Berkeley, within the context of enterprise-level transactional services, being user-centred is less a visual or aesthetic process and is one more closely aligned to engineering.  The Berkeley article quotes a definition for design from the MIT Technology Review (subscription required):

‘A vigorous [sic] approach to solving problems, identifying new opportunities and creating great solutions’

This provides the basis for a definition and vision for user-centred design.  To ensure this remains rooted in the needs of users and for service providers, the following definition is suggested as the basis for a vision:

A rigorous approach to solving problems, identifying new opportunities and creating great solutions that are valuable, usable and feasible by identifying and validating clearly articulated user needs.’

Author’s note, we’ve used the word ‘rigorous’ as it seems more appropriate than the original word ‘vigorous’.

Let’s consider that in more detail:

A rigorous approach – our approach needs to be active and thorough, consistently applied and evidence-based.  It needs to be based in emerging best practice and flexible in application to particular project contexts.

To problem solving – use critical thinking and design skills to present options and solutions to clearly stated problems, from all relevant perspectives.

Identifying new opportunities – we need to be proactive in identifying new opportunities, both in new services that can be delivered as well as enhancements to existing services, not just passive in tackling the opportunities presented to us.  We need to be creative in finding the opportunities that are not clearly articulated by users.

Creating great solutions – we should aim to use collaborative design approaches to create innovative solutions that go beyond what was expected by users and business stakeholders.

That are valuable – design solutions that deliver the most value to the funding organisation by working with users and stakeholders to drive out the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Usable – UX skills help translate the service vision into a description of a tangible service that’s usable and even desirable.

Feasible – delivering the service must be technically and organisationally feasible and cost-effective.

Identifying and validating clearly articulated user needs – we need to use a design thinking approach of framing opportunities, understanding users and options, envisioning solutions and learning through a process of rapid prototyping and validation.  This thinking underpins out FUEL framework.

We aren’t suggesting this provides a definitive definition for the term ‘user-centred’, but it does provide a workable framework for now.

Author’s note: The sharp-eyed among you will spot the subtle reference to product ownership by the introduction of the terms ‘valuable’, ‘usable’ and ‘feasible’ as defined by Marty Cagan and discussed in our article Product ownership in the enterprise.

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