User Centered Design

Your constantly-updated definition of User Centered Design and collection of topical content and literature


What is User Centered Design?

User-centered design (UCD) is an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process. In UCD, design teams involve users throughout the design process via a variety of research and design techniques, to create highly usable and accessible products for them.

UCD is an Iterative Process

In user-centered design, designers use a mixture of investigative methods and tools (e.g., surveys and interviews) and generative ones (e.g., brainstorming) to develop an understanding of user needs.

See how to apply user-centered design here.

Generally, each iteration of the UCD approach involves four distinct phases. First, as designers working in teams, we try to understand the context in which users may use a system. Then, we identify and specify the users’ requirements. A design phase follows, in which the design team develops solutions. The team then proceeds to an evaluation phase. Here, you assess the outcomes of the evaluation against the users’ context and requirements, to check how well a design is performing. More specifically, you see how close it is to a level that matches the users’ specific context and satisfies all of their relevant needs. From here, your team makes further iterations of these four phases, and you continue until the evaluation results are satisfactory.

User-centered design is an iterative process that focuses on an understanding of the users and their context in all stages of design and development.

UCD Considers the Whole User Experience

In UCD, you base your projects upon an explicit understanding of the users, tasks and environments. The aim of the process is to capture and address the whole user experience. Therefore, your design team should include professionals from across multiple disciplines (e.g., ethnographers, psychologists, software and hardware engineers), as well as domain experts, stakeholders and the users themselves. Experts may carry out evaluations of the produced designs, using design guidelines and criteria. However, you should bear two crucial points in mind. First, to span the entire user experience, you must involve the users for evaluation. Second, you'll need to ensure long-term monitoring of use.

Investment in UCD Pays off

When your design team brings the users into every stage of the design process, you invest your effort and other resources into a powerful way of finding out what works well, what doesn’t and why. Your users are an early-warning system you can use to course-correct and fine-tune your design. They can expose many aspects—positive and negative—your team may have overlooked regarding such vital areas as usability and accessibility. That’s why it’s so important to understand how powerful the benefits of a user-centered design approach are.

“Being human-centred is an additional cost to any project, so businesses rightly ask whether taking so much time to talk to people, produce prototype designs and so on is worthwhile. The answer is a fundamental ‘yes’.”

— David Benyon, Professor with over 25 years of experience in the field of HCI

David Benyon distinguishes four ways in which UCD pays off:

  1. With close user involvement, products are more likely to meet users’ expectations and requirements. This leads to increased sales and lower costs incurred by customer services.
  2. Systems designers tailor products for people in specific contexts and with specific tasks, thereby reducing the chances of situations with a high risk of human error arising. UCD leads to safer products.
  3. Putting designers in close contact with users means a deeper sense of empathy emerges. This is essential in creating ethical designs that respect privacy and the quality of life.
  4. By focusing on all users of a product, designers can recognize the diversity of cultures and human values through UCD – a step in the right direction towards creating sustainable businesses.

Learn More about User-Centered Design

You can read more about user-centered design from Professor David Benyon in his book Designing Interactive Systems A Comprehensive Guide to HCI, UX and Interaction Design. has created a list of techniques that you can use in a UX design process. Many of them will help you put the user center stage in your project. Browse the techniques here:

If you want to start learning how to set up a user-centered design process now, the Interaction Design Foundation’s online courses are a great place to start. You can read more about all the courses we offer here:

Literature on User Centered Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on User Centered Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Featured article

A User-Centred Approach to Mobile Design and a 5 Stage Process for You to Use

A User-Centred Approach to Mobile Design and a 5 Stage Process for You to Use

The mobile web is here to stay. However, it’s important to remember that having a mobile website isn’t the key to success – it’s providing the right approach to the mobile user experience that brings success. Taking a user-centred approach to mobile (and other) design can help you keep in mind the outcomes that you intend rather than wasting time on unrewarding designs.

The mobile web is a description intended to distinguish accessing the internet on a tablet or a smartphone as opposed to a regular PC or laptop. As the world has adopted smartphones over the last decade – companies have come to understand the advantages of catering for the mobile web. However, too many businesses start with the end-point in mind; “We need a mobile app or a mobile website!” rather than considering why their users would want it.

There are advantages to delivering a mobile web experience:

  • There is the opportunity to cater for the specific users’ needs at the right moment and in the right place.
  • The mobile web can be accessed in places where the Internet is not easily accessible from other devices.
  • Development for the mobile web can be cost effective and even be cheaper than standard websites.
  • There is potential to reach a much larger user base (there are more smartphone owners than desktop and laptop owners).
  • There is the opportunity to reach a much wider geographic area (in developing nations smartphones are often the only way for a user to access the internet).

The User-Centred Mobile Design Approach

Author/Copyright holder: Paul Veugen. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

There are 5 stages of the cycle (all development is assumed to be cyclical with products going through multiple iterations over a lifetime).

You assess the situation as it is at the moment (maybe that’s “we don’t have a mobile website” or maybe it’s “our mobile app is not performing as we’d hoped it would”, etc.).

Then you work out what it is that your users need from you. Once that’s done, you sit down and prioritize features for your mobile platform and then you work on designing those features while ensuring that you’ve put “mobile first” and finally, you review and refine the design.

1. Assessing the Current Situation

Yes, the mobile web is a big thing. Yes, there are more smartphone and tablet users than PC/Desktop users. But (and isn’t there always a but?) you can’t assume that your users want to use your website via those platforms. In fact, recent research suggests that many users (in general terms) use the mobile web for a limited array of things (mainly dating, e-mail, some apps and social media) and that when users have an option – they prefer to do more complex work from their desktops.

You need to think about whether a fully functional mobile app or website is really what you need – or is it possible that your users only need a small subset of functionality on the move and that they’ll do most of their work at a desktop?

Is it possible that your user base is less interested in a mobile web experience and more interested in an enhanced experience with the products and platforms you already offer?

2. Understanding Your User

Before you go rushing out to do any design or feature prioritization it’s important to understand your users better and in a mobile context.

You need to know things like:

  • How do they prefer to access the internet?
  • How much time do they spend interacting with your site at the moment?
  • How much time do they spend online using a mobile access point?
  • What features would be critical for providing a mobile experience?
  • What are they frustrated with in your offering at the moment that could be done better via mobile?
  • What devices are they using to access the mobile web?

If you have more than one user persona – you’ll need to answer these questions about each user group.

You’ll also want to tie this into a “higher-level” picture. Get out and investigate trends in your industry and on the mobile web. You may have noticed that apps are more popular than browsing on the mobile web – does that matter to your users?

3. What Will Your Mobile Web Experience Offer?

Then it’s on to prioritizing what goes in to your mobile experience. Your user research will show you what your users want but you also need to consider what the business wants from the process too. You may need to revise and modify components of the experience in order to handle conflicts between users and the business.

User experience is essential but it’s no good if it doesn’t deliver business results. Compromise can be a key part of getting this right.

Don’t forget that too much complexity early in the product lifecycle can be a major drawback. Prioritizing needs also means not being afraid to hold back ideas to future releases. A great minimum viable product can often be better than an overly complex one.

Author/Copyright holder: Daniel Würstl. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

4. Mobile Design Considerations

There are going to be mobile specific design considerations too. Are you going to integrate your mobile offering with your current offering? Will you use responsive design or adaptive design if you do?

A lot of this will boil down to context. E.g the context in which the mobile device will be used. If your users access the mobile web from their desks, that’s awesome, but many users don’t. They’re going to be trying to use them in the supermarket, on their daily commute, on the walk to the coffee shop, etc. But also from their sofas and beds and many more places that the ones we often think of.

That means you’re going to have to consider how to reduce distractions and make it easy for the user to focus on the task in hand too.

Josh Clark, the author of Tapworthy- Designing Great iPhone Apps, offers three categories for mobile web access:

  • Microtasking: When the user interacts with their device for brief but frenzied periods of activity
  • Local: When the user wants to know what’s going on around them
  • Bored: When the user has nothing better to do and is looking to be entertained or otherwise diverted

Keeping these categories in mind can make it much easier to design for the user’s needs and focus on what makes mobile different from other access platforms.

5. Review and Refine

Sketch and prototype in early iteration phases. Make sure to test them with users. Get feedback and iterate rapidly.

Don’t forget to ensure your site is compliant with W3C standards.

Then go back to the beginning and iterate. It’s why the user-centred design process for mobile is cyclical. Well, just like all user-centred design processes!

UCD for Mobile, is it Really Different from UCD for Other Platforms?

User-centred design is user-centred design. The process for mobile should be the same as it is for any other platform. However, mobile platforms are different from desktop and laptop platforms and it’s important for a designer to take that into account when applying a user-centred design approach.

The process above is a standard UCD process, as proposed by Norman and Draper the original architects of UCD, but one which asks you to reflect on the mobile platform before moving ahead with the design.

Author/Copyright holder: Pixabay. Copyright terms and licence: Free to Use.

The Take Away

The mobile web is not a new concept. Deciding whether your users need mobile web facilities is important and then following a user-centred design process offers you the best chance of success. There are significant differences in the way that mobile devices operate compared to other devices and you need to make sure that you handle those differences with care to deliver the best end result.

References & Where to Learn More

Course: Mobile User Experience (UX) Design:

Want to gain insight into the way that the mobile web is being used? Here’s a great starting point -

Read the Mobile Computing chapter by Jesper Kjeldskov:

Take a look at how user centred design can be utilized in mobile app development here -

Here’s a great resource on guerrilla UCD for mobile for when time and budget is constricted -


Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Wikimedia Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

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Learn more about User Centered Design

Take a deep dive into User Centered Design with our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide.

User experience, or UX, has been a buzzword since about 2005, and customer intelligence agency Walker predicts that experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by 2020 [1]. Chances are, you’ve heard of the term, or even have it on your portfolio. But, like most of us, there’s also a good chance that you sometimes feel unsure of what the term “user experience” actually covers.

[User experience] is used by people to say, Im a user experience designer, I design websites, or I design apps. [] and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app, or who knows what. No! Its everythingits the way you experience the world, its the way you experience your life, its the way you experience the service. Or, yeah, an app or a computer system. But its a system thats everything.[2]

Don Norman, pioneer, and inventor of the term user experience

As indicated by Don Norman, User Experience is an umbrella term that covers a number of different areas. When you work with user experience, it’s crucial to have a good understanding of what those areas are so that you know what tools are available to you.

Throughout this course, you will gain a thorough understanding of the various design principles that come together to create a user’s experience when using a product or service. As you proceed, you’ll learn the value user experience design brings to a project, and what areas you must consider when you want to design great user experiences. Because user experience is an evolving term, we can’t give you a definition of ‘user experience’ to end all discussions, but we will provide you with a solid understanding of the different aspects of user experience, so it becomes clear in your mind what is involved in creating great UX designs.

If you are new to the Interaction Design Foundation, this course is a great place to start because it brings together materials from many of our other courses. This provides you with both an excellent introduction to user experience and with a preview of the courses we have to offer to help you develop your future career. After each lesson, we will introduce you to the courses you can take if a specific topic has caught your attention. That way, you’ll find it easy to continue your learning journey.

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