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This chapter is from the book

The Six Principles of UCD

Making the transition from traditional design and development approaches to UCD usually involves a major cultural transformation for an organization and a paradigm shift for practitioners. To ensure success, companies typically need to take several steps to ensure that the key elements of this transition are carried out appropriately. These key steps include identifying core principles, carrying out education, and integrating UCD into the company's business and development process (Vredenburg, 1999). These elements, which are key to introducing UCD, will be discussed in Chapter 3.

For now, let's focus on the six core UCD principles that communicate the essence of UCD and serve as the framework for individual methods and techniques:

  1. Set business goals. Determining the target market, intended users, and primary competition is central to all design and user participation.

    Understand users. An understanding of the user is the driving force behind all design.

  2. Design the total customer experience. Everything a customer sees, hears, and touches is designed together by a multidisciplinary team.

  3. Evaluate designs. User feedback is gathered often with rigor and speed and drives product design.

  4. Assess competitiveness. Competitive design requires a relentless focus on the ways users currently carry out the tasks and a determination to make designs add value.

  5. Manage for Users. User feedback is integral to product plans, priorities, and decision making.

These principles are discussed in detail in the following sections.

Setting Business Goals

The first principle (Figure 2.4) involves determining the market segments to target, the customers and their characteristics within these segments, and the solution the majority of customers within the segment use today, that is, the competition for the offering. UCD must fit into a company's business strategy and demonstrably add financial value. It is critical to have this information in place at the start of a project. If this information does not exist or is incomplete, the rest of the User-Centered Design activities will be suspect.

Figure 2.4Figure 2.4 Set business goals.

Understanding Users

The second principle of UCD (Figure 2.5) says that an understanding of the user is the driving force behind all design. This principle is the basis of UCD. Without an appropriate focus on the way customers do things today and the way they want to do things differently in the future, design has no foundation.

To understand customers, UCD teams must understand their current and future tasks, the tools they employ to carry out the tasks, what problems they are experiencing with the tools, and the key characteristics of the environment in which they carry out their tasks (e.g., do they primarily work in groups or on the road).

Figure 2.5Figure 2.5 Understand users.

  • Understanding all segments of the target user audience is an essential step in UCD.

  • Sharing target user profile information and keeping it at the front of everyone's minds help ensure that the design is truly user centered.

  • Contacts from within a company are essential to supplying target user definition information.

A team consisting of user interaction designers, programmers, a user assistance designer, and content specialists used UCD on a project at MetLife to enhance and design a new graphical user interface for an existing claims processing system. The target audience for this new system consisted of users with many different job roles. For example, clerks would enter data into the system but would have no responsibility for claims processing. At the other end of the spectrum, case managers would have the authority to adjudicate claims. Other segments consisted of specialists such as vocational rehabilitation specialists and disability nurse specialists.

Some of these users would be allowed access to the system to input new or update existing claims, while others would be allowed only to view existing claims. Such a diverse target audience posed a design challenge: How do you optimize a system to meet the needs of all these user groups?

To provide a better design for this diverse audience, the team spent time on clearly identifying each of the user segments and the tasks performed. We created a large matrix of job roles and tasks. (See Table 2.1.) We distributed this matrix by posting it into our design notebook, a database containing all artifacts of the evolving design, user feedback data, and other materials needed by the team. We then summarized these data by collapsing the many audience segments into four main user groups. We copied this summary matrix onto a large poster board and posted it onto the walls of our work area as a constant reminder of the audience we were designing for. We used these data to help us set system security, that is, which users could access various parts of the system. We also used the data to decide which tasks to support "up front" in the user interface as opposed to those tasks that could be buried somewhat deeper within the interface. These data were also useful for creating testing scenarios for the various user segments.

This experience pointed out the importance of having a multidisciplinary design team of specialists from both outside and within an organization. It would be extremely difficult and time consuming for a consulting team consisting solely of design specialists from outside a company to understand the various job roles and responsibilities well enough to design a system to meet the needs of all its users.

TABLE 2.1 Selection from a user profile matrix.


User Group



Unit Manager (n = 53) (n = 10) Directors



  • Inquire on claim for various info.

  • Review and approve payments over case manager's authority

  • Inquire on Work Queues to determine workload and backlog

  • Update Claim Diary to document phone calls, action plans, etc.

  • Update Claim data items on occasion

Disability Nurse Specialist (n=45)

Medical Consultant (n=20)



  • Scan through Claim Diary entries to locate those concerning medical diagnosis, treatment, prognosis

  • Read selected Claim Diary entries to become familiar with claimant's clinical situation

  • Review Treatment Screen information for diagnosis codes, treatment dates, physician phone number, Claim End Date

  • Create Claim Diary entries summarizing clinical information, phone conversations, recommendations to case manager

Designing the Total Customer Experience

The third principle of UCD (Figure 2.6) focuses on the design of the total customer experience and says that everything a customer sees, hears, and touches is designed together by a multidisciplinary team. A critical ingredient of UCD is that the design effort must focus on the total solution and all aspects of the customer experience. That is, it should be

Figure 2.6Figure 2.6 Design the total customer experience.

  • Easy to buy
  • Easy to set up
  • Easy to learn
  • Easy to use
  • Intuitive
  • Engaging
  • Useful

You might be wondering why buying is considered part of the focus of UCD. Well, things like advertising and packaging typically lead to the first customer experience with an offering. They set up expectations, establish a design signature, and yield the first positive or negative reaction to the offering. If they set an unrealistic expectation, establish a poor or inconsistent design signature, or yield a negative first impression for the offering, the success of the design of the actual product is compromised before anyone even touches it.

You might also be wondering about the attributes intuitive and engaging. There was a time when usable meant the absence of obvious user problems.

However, the competitive bar has been raised to the point where products now must be able to accommodate easily what users want to do and to provide a design that is pleasing and enjoyable. (Jordan, 2000)

All these criteria reinforce the need to design the total customer experience with specialists from various disciplines.


  • Design all aspects of the system with the characteristics of the target audience in mind.

  • Pay particular attention to giving users a positive "out-of-the-box experience."

  • Whenever possible, turn negative aspects of the system design into opportunities for delight.

The IBM RS/6000 desktop and deskside systems were designed to be consistent, user friendly, and appealing to their intended users. The target user audience for these products was system administrators, who could best be described at the time of this work to be young professionals who live and breathe computers. The packaging was designed to smoothly orchestrate the hardware set up and software installation through carefully presented, sequenced materials, and was based on usability studies of the tasks required for a successful set up. This logical ordering of materials avoided the "Christmas effect," where users scatter packaging and components around the room, digging for (and sometimes even discarding) items needed at various stages of the setup. Collateral material was included to capture the customers' interest and enthusiasm for the system. Users opened the product box to find a t-shirt, a mouse pad, a copy of Wired magazine, and games that showcased the 3D graphics capabilities of the system such as Quake (see Figure 2.7). This approach to design worked beautifully. It became cool to have an RS/6000. One of the most common questions asked by customers in the feedback survey was "Where can I get another t-shirt?" One customer manager reported having to hold a raffle to give away the t-shirts because users who had been assigned systems from other vendors were jealous.

Figure 2.7Figure 2.7 Boxes designed to organize materials and prevent shifting in transit. (Courtesy of IBM.)

Additional efforts were made to ensure that the users' experience with the system would be positive from the very beginning. In one case, usability testing found that users were impatient the first time they booted the system because it went through a lengthy initial configuration process. The product designers decided to include a bag of microwave popcorn with the computer. When the system reached the configuration step, the instructions suggested the user enjoy some popcorn. Later, the installation process was changed to minimize the configuration delay.

Evaluating Designs

The principle of evaluating designs (Figure 2.8) focuses on gathering user feedback to the evolving design and says that user feedback is gathered often, with rigor and speed, and drives product design.

Figure 2.8Figure 2.8 Evaluate designs.

Feedback must be frequent to be useful. Effective UCD teams schedule a feedback session once a week or once every two weeks. That way, when issues come up on the team like "I think customers would want it this way or that," the team can save the time they would spend arguing and simply get input on it at the next scheduled session. Rigor is also important. Simply asking a customer or two what they think is not sufficient. This type of approach can be misleading. There may be problems with bias, lack of objectivity, and lack of thoroughness. Instead, UCD specifies particular user feedback methods that can ensure that user feedback is gathered with rigor.

Finally, the feedback collected from users must drive product design, or it makes no sense to collect the feedback at all. There are two basic approaches to collecting feedback on design. The first is typically referred to as "low-fi" prototyping, which involves getting feedback using paper-and-pencil mockups of designs. This method is most appropriate early in a design cycle and is preferable even when higher fidelity prototypes are available. Users give better input when it is clear to them that the design is not "finished" and that their input can actually be accommodated. The second type of feedback requires hands-on design validation testing of a working prototype or actual early product.

Several methods for gathering user feedback at various stages of UCD will be discussed in Chapter 5.


  • Formal usability lab testing is an excellent way to evaluate mature designs.

  • Multidisciplinary collaboration in usability testing can enhance the testing.

  • Usability labs can facilitate collaborative test administration.

Formal usability lab testing is an excellent tool for the thorough evaluation of designs that have matured into high-fidelity prototypes or to actual program code. One example of a usability test performed by our team was a usability test of an application that enables computer salespeople to configure large mainframe systems. Multidisciplinary involvement in the testing made this test particularly effective. Throughout the entire test, the user research specialist sat beside the design team leader. The latter was one of two human-computer interaction (HCI) designers for this application. He had a thorough understanding of the context in which the application was to be used. He knew his users. He was therefore able to expand upon the questions and observations of the user feedback specialist, help interpret users' behaviors, and help elicit more detailed comments from the participants, all in real time. Because the test was performed in a usability lab (Figure 2.9), the participants were not privy to those discussions; the collaboration didn't interfere with the test. The result was a test and, ultimately, an application that benefited greatly from this multidisciplinary collaboration.

Figure 2.9Figure 2.9 A composite video frame from a usability test lab. (Courtesy of IBM.)

Assessing competitiveness

The fifth UCD principle (Figure 2.10) concerns assessing competitiveness and says that competitive design requires a relentless focus on the competition and its customers.

Figure 2.10Figure 2.10 Assess competitiveness.

What we mean by competitor here is whatever the majority of customers are using today to carry out the tasks. The competition may be an actual competitor company's product, a combination of products, or even some analog (nontechnology) methods.

Scott Cook, the CEO of Intuit Corporation, maker of Quicken, the popular financial tool, often talks about how he is having difficulty unseating his main competitor. He talks about how tough this competitor is and how pervasive it is in the market. At this point, everyone thinks he is referring to Microsoft, but he isn't. He points out that his main competitor is the pen. It has total portability, ease of use, and a tough-to-beat price point. However, he says that he feels that as long as he focuses his company on this competitor, in addition to Microsoft, of course, then it will be positioned for continued leadership.

Development organizations and companies commonly feel that their product is unique and that it doesn't have any competitors. As Scott Cook's position shows, virtually all products have some sort of competitor, some way people manage to do tasks without your product. This is the way we need to view competitors in terms of UCD. We must examine our competitors by understanding the use of their offerings, evaluate our solutions relative to theirs, and carry out head-to-head, task-based user tests to compare our solutions to theirs.


  • It's important to identify all your competitors.

  • You can use photographs and videos to capture competitors' designs.

  • You should share your data with all interested parties.

On a recent project to design a kiosk for a large automobile manufacturer, an evaluation of the competition was one of the first activities performed. A user research specialist from the UCD team examined two sets of competitors. First, she looked at existing automotive kiosks. Fortunately, a wealth of these kiosks existed all in one place: the annual Detroit Auto Show. (See Figure 2.11.)

Figure 2.11Figure 2.11 An automotive kiosk.

The second set of competitors, the team reasoned, would be best-of-breed kiosks in general. (See Figure 2.12.) Again, the team sought a place where a large number of kiosks existed all in one location. The team found this at EPCOT Center. The user research specialist designed a heuristic evaluation checklist. She examined kiosks that attracted many users, as well as those that stood idle. She noted design strengths and weaknesses. She took photographs and videos and brought them back to the development team. She then presented the data at a large meeting of everyone involved with the project. She wrote and distributed a report containing the photos.

Figure 2.12Figure 2.12 A screen from a well-designed kiosk.

Managing for Users

The last and perhaps most important UCD principle (Figure 2.13) concerns managing for users and says that user feedback is integral to product plans, priorities, and decision making. An organization can be completely in alignment with the first five principles, but if it's not in alignment with this one, all is lost. There have been projects that had highly motivated design teams doing wonderful design based on user input, but the design never got integrated into the product; in turn, users didn't realize the benefits of the work.

Figure 2.13Figure 2.13 Manage for users.

Building ease of use into offerings using UCD involves a set of business decisions. As with everything else, therefore, ease of use needs to be managed into offerings, starting with making the appropriate investment decisions, setting ease of use objectives, building appropriate resources into the development/production plan, acquiring the requisite key skills, tracking and fixing user problems found through customer feedback sessions, and keeping focused on the results from a customer perspective by tracking customer satisfaction.

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