User Centered Design (UCD)

Your constantly-updated definition of User Centered Design (UCD) and collection of videos and articles

What is User Centered Design (UCD)?

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. The term was coined in the 1970s. Later, cognitive science and user experience expert Don Norman adopted the term in his extensive work on improving what people experience in their use of items. And the term rose in prominence thanks to works such as User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction (which Norman co-authored with Stephen W. Draper) and Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (originally titled The Psychology of Everyday Things).

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4 Phases in User-centered Design

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

Take our 21st Century Design course with Don Norman to study areas of UCD.

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Read Don Norman and Stephen W. Draper’s User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-computer Interaction for a wealth of insights into this fascinating subject.

Don Norman’s legendary book The Design of Everyday Things covers a wide array of UCD aspects.

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.

Questions related to User Centered Design

What is a persona in the context of user-centered design?

In the context of user-centered design, a persona is a detailed and semi-fictional representation of an ideal user of a system. It is a tool used by designers to maintain focus on the user's needs throughout the design process. A persona typically includes demographics, needs, goals, and behavioral patterns. 

HCI expert Prof Alan Dix explains how a persona, such as 'Betty', can be created with details like age, education, job role, and challenges faced to help designers understand and address the specific needs of similar users. 

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This detailed description helps seed the imagination of designers and enables them to ask critical questions like "Would Betty understand this feature?" or "How would Betty feel about using this aspect of the system?". This approach ultimately leads to a more user-centered and effective design.

If you're interested in learning more about personas, user-centered design, and other essential concepts, consider taking the  Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide course.

What is the user centered design process?

The user-centered design process involves understanding users and their contexts, identifying user pain points and needs, designing solutions to address those needs and evaluating the solutions to ensure they meet users’ requirements.

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CEO of Experience Dynamics Frank Spillers uses Personas to illustrate the importance of field studies to understand the context of use.

What are user centered design principles?

User-centered design principles are essential in creating products that meet users' needs and expectations. 

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These principles include:

  1. Focusing on the people: This is the cornerstone of user-centered design. It involves understanding the needs, preferences, and limitations of the end-users. 

  2. Solving the right problem: Defining and understanding the problem correctly is essential before jumping to solutions. Thorough research and analysis are necessary to design for users' actual needs.

  3. Recognizing everything as a system: Everything is interconnected, and changing one part of the system can affect others. 

  4. Not rushing to a solution: User-centered design is complex and involves various factors like societies, cultures, political forces, and economic factors.

The course "Design for a Better World with Don Norman" provides an in-depth understanding of these principles and how they can be applied to create designs that positively impact humanity. 

What are the 4 stages of user-centered design?
  1. Research: This is the first stage where you focus on understanding the users' needs, preferences, and behaviors. You collect data through various methods such as interviews, surveys, and observations.

  2. Requirements: Based on the research findings, you define the requirements—what problems and pain points do you intend to solve for the users 

  3. Design: In this stage, you create solutions based on the requirements. You create wireframes, mockups, and prototypes addressing users' needs and pain points. 

  4. Evaluation: This stage involves testing the designed solutions with real users to identify usability issues and improvement areas. Various testing methods, such as usability testing, A/B testing, and heuristic evaluation, can be used. 

These steps align closely with the 5-phase design thinking model. Learn more about this non-linear and iterative approach to develop and launch innovative ideas in this video:

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Hasso-Platner Institute Panorama

Ludwig Wilhelm Wall, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Why is user-centered design important?

User-centered design is important because it helps teams create useful and usable products for people.

Don Norman describes the evolution of user-centered design and why he believes user-centered design (and its newer avatars) can help address global issues.

What is Human Centered Design?

Human-Centered Design (HCD) is an approach to design that emphasizes creating solutions that address people's unique needs and abilities. It involves understanding the community's challenges, learning from them, and collaborating to develop solutions that effectively tackle their particular issues. 

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Cognitive Science building at UC San Diego. by AndyrooP (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

As highlighted in the video, spending enough time in the community is essential to understanding their needs and capabilities. Co-design, where the community drives the design process, is a crucial aspect of HCD. This approach increases the likelihood of solutions being accepted and adopted by the local people and empowers them to address their challenges, ultimately leading to more sustainable and impactful outcomes.

Who invented user-centered design?

Don Norman developed User-Centered Design (UCD), originally terming it User Centered Service Design.. In this video, he charts the evolution of the term from user- to human- and humanity-centered design.

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Cognitive Science building at UC San Diego. by AndyrooP (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Pseudo-commands to illustrate how line-by-line text editing works. by Charlie42 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Norman's design approach transitioned from focusing on technology to addressing global challenges, culminating in this inclusive design philosophy.

Design thinking vs systems thinking vs HCD vs UCD vs design sprint: Are they all the same?

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Airplane Cockpit by Riik@mctr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cognitive Science building at UC San Diego. by AndyrooP (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Pseudo-commands to illustrate how line-by-line text editing works. by Charlie42 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

  1. Human-Centered Design is a newer term for User-Centered Design

“Human-centred design is an approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, and usability knowledge and techniques. This approach enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability; and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance.”

ISO 9241-210:2019(en), ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) 

User experience expert Don Norman describes human-centered design (HCD) as a more evolved form of user-centered design (UCD). The word "users" removes their importance and treats them more like objects than people. By replacing “user” with “human,” designers can empathize better with the people for whom they are designing. Don Norman takes HCD a step further and prefers the term People-Centered Design.

  1. Design thinking has a broader scope and takes HCD beyond the design discipline to drive innovation.

People sometimes use design thinking and human-centered design to mean the same thing. However, they are not the same. HCD is a formal discipline with a specific process used only by designers and usability engineers to design products. Design thinking borrows the design methods and applies them to problems in general.

  1. Design Sprint condenses design thinking into a 1-week structured workshop

Google Ventures condensed the design thinking framework into a time-constrained 5-day workshop format called the Design Sprint. The sprint follows one step per day of the week:

  • Monday: Unpack

  • Tuesday: Sketch

  • Wednesday: Decide

  • Thursday: Prototype

  • Friday: Test

Learn more about the design sprint in Make Your UX Design Process Agile Using Google’s Methodology.

  1. Systems Thinking is a distinct discipline with a broader approach to problem-solving

“Systems thinking is a way of exploring and developing effective action by looking at connected wholes rather than separate parts.”

— Introduction to Systems thinking, Report of GSE and GORS seminar, Civil Service Live

Both HCD and Systems Thinking are formal disciplines. Designers and usability engineers primarily use HCD. Systems thinking has applications in various fields, such as medical, environmental, political, economic, human resources, and educational systems.

HCD has a much narrower focus and aims to create and improve products. Systems thinking looks at the larger picture and aims to change entire systems.

Don Norman encourages designers to incorporate systems thinking in their work. Instead of looking at people and problems in isolation, designers must look at them from a systems point of view.

In summary, UCD and HCD refer to the same field, with the latter being a preferred phrase.

Design thinking is a broader framework that borrows methods from human-centered design to approach problems beyond the design discipline. It encourages people with different backgrounds and expertise to work together and apply the designer’s way of thinking to generate innovative solutions to problems.

Systems thinking is another approach to problem-solving that looks at the big picture instead of specific problems in isolation.

The design sprint is Google Ventures’ version of the design thinking process, structured to fit the design process in 1 week.

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Literature on User Centered Design (UCD)

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

Learn more about User Centered Design (UCD)

Take a deep dive into User Centered Design (UCD) with our course Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman .

In this course, taught by your instructor, Don Norman, you’ll learn how designers can improve the world, how you can apply human-centered design to solve complex global challenges, and what 21st century skills you’ll need to make a difference in the world. Each lesson will build upon another to expand your knowledge of human-centered design and provide you with practical skills to make a difference in the world.

“The challenge is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce positive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is successful, and that customers love. It can be done.”

— Don Norman

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