Evidence, not opinions: the importance of User-Centered Design

I’ve been around long enough to make (and learn from) a few mistakes, and the one thing I’m just as passionate about today as I was when I started is never jumping to conclusions when it comes to our users’ needs.

Any agency worth its salt uses a process known as User-Centred Design (UCD). UCD forms the cornerstone of every project here at Doghouse and ensures we're making informed decisions when developing software.

When our clients flick the switch on their new website or piece of software, they want to be 100% sure it’s going to do what it’s designed to do. They pay us for that assurance, and by following our UCD process we provide an objective framework that lays the foundations of success.

While our process is quite intricate from an outsider's perspective, I’ve broken it down below into four very digestible parts: research > discovery > design > validation.

Research
Our internal monologue begins something like this: “Scratch all those preconceived ideas, you know nothing! I mean it - forget what you think you know.” 

Instead, we research using a number of UCD tools and techniques, including stakeholder interviews. We sit down with key people in the client's organisation and identify their fundamental business requirements, and even help our clients empathise with their end-users if necessary.

For example, let's say the marketing department requests a big promotional block on the homepage. Our job is to question how useful it is to the end users. Will it achieve its objective (conversions, CTR, etc) and does it engage the core identities discovered under our UCD process?

Another element of this research stage is to do standardised surveys. Here, we ask a sample of people who match the target market the same questions to pin down what they're really after from a website. It's not always the most obvious things. In fact, it can be really basic - easy fixes that make a huge difference to the user experience.

A recent survey we conducted on an ecommerce fashion website highlights this perfectly. The results revealed that when searching for items by colour, users who were colour blind struggled to select the right little colour box – they wanted the name of the colour spelled out too. If we didn’t ask, we’d never have known. 

The final step in the research stage is contextual research – finding out how people are using the website and when. If someone is browsing an ecommerce website, are they on the couch in front of the TV using their iPad? Are they on a train or a bus? If it’s revealed they prefer viewing the site on a handheld device over a laptop or desktop computer, we can seek to understand why and then cater to those needs.

Discovery
Our research has revealed some key intelligence as to how users currently use a website, what they’d like out of a website, and what speed bumps they encounter in terms of usability. Keeping this information front-of-mind, we now build a picture of how the end user wants to use the site.

To do this, we develop personas. These short, vivid descriptions of fictional characters represent a product’s “ideal” users. Although these personas are fictional, they are very much based on cold hard facts.

Developing key personas is pivotal in creating a user story, because the way people flow through your site will depend entirely on who they are. By having a clear idea of who your user is, their needs and wants, we’re better able to create a website that ensures they have a clear pathway to transacting with your company.

Design 
Even by the design stage, we’re still a while away from picking sleek typography, eye-catching images and branded colour-schemes. Before all that, we need to put together a wireframe - a really basic template of the website structure and the important pages.

The wireframe helps us make sure that the information architecture is sound. By that, I mean the site map and organisation of information is intuitive and helps funnel users to the content they’re seeking.

When we finally do get around to the typography, images and colours, we ensure everything we choose matches up with what we learned in the research stage.

Validation tools
We don't want to spend time and money on production only to launch the website and find out it's too hard to use or full of glitches.

To avoid this, we use a range validation tools including Guerilla Usability Testing. This is really informal and can be as simple as accosting someone (who fits the target audience) on the street and bribing them with coffee to test our product.

A more high-tech validation tool is Visual Website Optimiser (VWO), which we mainly use for heat mapping and click mapping. This shows us how people are actually using the site, and gives us objective feedback on the effectiveness of our approach.

Okay, now the website is ready to launch!
It’s the same mentality as ‘measure twice, cut once’; make design decisions that are based on evidence and not opinions. Put in the hard yards up front, and you’ll be rewarded with happier users, cheaper development, lower risk and ultimately a better website that helps achieve your goals - be it marketing, sales or otherwise.

If you're interested in conducting a User-Centered Design phase for your business or would like further information on our process, please contact our office here.