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Introduction to User-Centered Design

What is User-Centered Design?

Too often, systems are designed with a focus on business goals, fancy features, and the technological capabilities of hardware or software tools. All of these approaches to system design omit the most important part of the process – the end user. User-Centered Design (UCD) is the process of designing a tool, such as a website’s or application’s user interface, from the perspective of how it will be understood and used by a human user. Rather than requiring users to adapt their attitudes and behaviors in order to learn and use a system, a system can be designed to support its intended users’ existing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors as they relate to the tasks that the system is being designed to support. The result of employing UCD to a system design is a product that offers a more efficient, satisfying, and user-friendly experience for the user, which is likely to increase sales and customer loyalty.

What is User Experience Design?

User Experience Design (UXD) entails conducting user research exercises with intended users of a system. User research reveals users’ needs and preferences through user observations, one-on-one interviews, and creative activities that encourage users to express their emotions, motivations, and underlying concepts and beliefs about the steps involved in task procedures. By understanding the human emotions, motivations, and beliefs that surround a task, a user interface can be designed to accommodate and support user behaviors in a way that users will experience as natural and satisfying.

What is Usability?

Usability is a measure of the interactive user experience associated with a user interface, such a website or software application. A user-friendly interface design is easy-to-learn, supports users’ tasks and goals efficiently and effectively, and is satisfying and engaging to use.

An interface’s level of usability can be measured by inviting intended users of the system to participate in a usability testing session. During a usability test session, a user is given a series of tasks to complete by using the system in question, without any assistance from the researcher. The researcher records user behaviors, emotional reactions, and the user’s performance as the he attempts to accomplish each task. The researcher takes note of any moments of confusion or frustration that the user experienced while trying to complete a task, and also tracks whether or not the user was able to satisfactorily complete each task. Analysis of data from several users provides User Experience Engineers a means of recommending how and where to re-design the interface in order to improve its level of usability and thus, the user experience in general.

What makes a website or piece of software usable?

Usability depends on a number of factors including how well the functionality fits user needs, how well the flow through the application fits user tasks, and how well the response of the application fits user expectations. We can learn to be better user interface designers by learning design principles and design guidelines. But even the most insightful designer can only create a highly-usable system through a process that involves getting information from people who actually use the system. Usability is the quality of a system that makes it easy to learn, easy to use, easy to remember, error tolerant, and subjectively pleasing.

Why is Usability Important?

From the user’s perspective, usability is important because it can make the difference between performing a task accurately and completely or not, and enjoying the process or being frustrated. From the developer’s perspective, usability is important because it can mean the difference between the success or failure of a system. From a management point of view, software with poor usability can reduce the productivity of the workforce to a level of performance worse than without the system. In all cases, lack of usability can cost time and effort and can greatly determine the success or failure of a system. Given a choice, people tend to buy systems that are more user-friendly.

How Do You Achieve a High Level of Usability?

The key principle for maximizing usability is to employ iterative design, which progressively refines the design through evaluation from the early stages of design. The evaluation steps enable the designers and developers to incorporate user and client feedback until the system reaches an acceptable level of usability.

The preferred method for ensuring usability is to test actual users on a working system. Achieving a high level of usability requires focusing design efforts on the intended end-user of the system. There are many ways to determine who the primary users are, how they work, and what tasks they must accomplish. However, clients’ schedules and budgets can sometimes prevent this ideal approach. Some alternative methods include user testing on system prototypes, a usability audit conducted by experts, and cognitive modeling.

Where is Usability Applied?

Usability is one of the focuses of the fields of Human Factors Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction. As the name suggests, usability has to do with bridging the gap between people and machines. A user interface (or human-computer interface) refers to the parts of a hardware and/or software system that allow a person to communicate with it. This includes output devices (the way the computer talks to a user) and input devices (the way a user talks to the computer). Typical “output devices” include computer monitors and the operating systems that run on them, and also include speakers and other devices that provide feedback. “Input devices” include peripherals like keyboards, mice, and joysticks, and also include microphones and eye movement devices. Each of these interface components has devices corresponding to the visual (sight), aural (sound), and haptic (touch) channels of the brain. Usability engineering studies these elements of the user’s experience.

How Can I Learn More?

There are usability courses offered in a variety of usability areas, from introductory to advanced tutorials, that teach user testing, graphic design, and prototyping techniques. Check out the list of Books, University Programs, and Professional Organizations that we have provided on this site to learn more about Usability, Human Factors Psychology, and Human-Computer Interaction.

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