What is user-centered web design, and why is it so effective?

The User Experience Professionals Association defines user-centered design as “an approach to design that grounds the process in information about the people who use the product.” This definition also applies for user-centered web design.

Essentially, it not only takes into account the requirements and objectives of the user, but makes them the top priority during the design process.

Your product or service offerings may be great, but a laggy website or poorly designed interface can turn away potential customers. Even an aesthetically pleasing website is pointless when no one can actually use it for its intended purpose.

User-centered design has the ability to take the feelings, frustrations, and desires of customers, and come up with accessible and usable interfaces. When focused on the user, tasks and behaviors are anticipated and systems are designed in a way that makes for simple and easy use with minimal mental effort required.

Thinking of your users should never be an afterthought. Their needs must be carefully considered throughout the entirety of the design process. When you fail to consider your users from the very beginning, you end up wasting valuable time, money, and resources.

User-centered design not only enhances user experience, but leads to loyal, repeat customers, an increase in engagement and sales, and puts you ahead of the competition.

The Difference Between User-Centered and Human-Centered Design

It’s easy to assume that user-centered design and human-centered design are one and the same. After all, your users are all human, right?

User-centered design is in fact a subset of human-centered design.

What’s the difference? Simply put, not all humans are your users.

Not everyone has the same patterns of behavior, the same needs, the same motivations, or the same frustrations. However, the specific group of people you’re trying to target will have a lot of these things in common.

The point is not to design a website for just anyone to be able to use, but specifically for what your target audience requires and the unique ways in which they will behave.

Unlike human-centered, user-centered takes into account a specific demographic, then gets into the mindset of those within that particular subset.

Before we learn more about that, let’s look at the requirements for user-centered design.

Principles and Elements

The principles of web design make up the overall framework that relates to usability and user experience, and are the basis for design models and methodologies.

Elements, in this case, refer to the visual design aspects that support and communicate the principles to the user. The way everything looks and functions on a website needs to be in line with these fundamental principles.

As successful design correlates to usability in this regard, the functionality can be considered more important than even the most beautiful visual design.

Here are some important principles required for user-centered design and elements that support them.

1. Understanding Users and Task Requirements

  • Firstly and most obviously, understanding of current or potential users in order to put them at the centre of everything.
  • What your users would expect from your website, and why they’d be visiting it in the first place.
  • How much time users would spend on your website, and the journey and actions they would take.
  • Short sentences, easy to read text, and simple dialogue to communicate naturally with users.

2. Consistency and Reliability

  • An consistent look and feel of the website. Graphic design that radically changes from page to page confuses users.
  • A feeling of familiarity so that the business or brand is easily recognizable, no matter what part of the website the user is looking at.
  • Every action performed produces the expected outcomes. For example, if a user clicks on a send button after filling out a form, they need to receive some sort of visual confirmation that their data has been sent through successfully.
  • A sense of balance that limits clutter and confusion through the use of white space, useful images, boxes, and separators.
  • Consistent use of colors and typography following a style guide.

3. Accessibility and Clarity

  • Quick and easy-to-find information. Remember, users visit websites in order to achieve a specific purpose. If there isn’t an easy way to find what they’re looking for, they’ll become frustrated and give up.
  • Help and guidance. Users should be shown where to go to get the information they need.
  • A clear, simple, and easy to navigate site orientation. If users come to a website and are distracted by irrelevant content or become confused, they’ll quickly bounce.
  • Responsiveness and quick loading times. Websites need to work for all devices and screen sizes. Images that are fine on a desktop PC but are cut off when viewed on a smartphone should never occur.
  • Anticipation and prevention of simple errors.
  • An absence of broken links. Content shouldn’t become out-of-date or unreliable.
  • Navigation bars, logical menus, and search options.

4. Iterative Design and Continuous Development

  • Regular testing and refinement. Anything that is focused on the user should be constantly revised and improved upon to ensure that all needs are still being met.
  • Prototyping to optimize and gather input.
  • Contact forms that welcome feedback from users.

user-centered web design

Image Source: Nielsen Norman Group

The Process for User-Centered Web Design

Now that you know about the important design principles and elements to include, what’s the actual process for achieving a user-centered website?

Here are some stages to follow to make sure that you’re considering the user every step of the way.

1. User Research and Persona Development

Conduct research regarding your target audience. Who already uses the type of product or service you’re designing your website for, or who would benefit from it?

One way to go about finding what users want is through surveys. If you’re redesigning and already have a client base, you can send a questionnaire to your current customers. Not only will this provide invaluable information in order to create useful changes, but your users will appreciate that their input and opinions are valued.

Next, the most in-depth way to get to know your users is to develop buyer personas. These are representations of your ideal or current user base for the purpose of putting a name and face to characteristics and behaviors. If you want to know what your users need and find value in, you need to develop personas.

User research vaguely establishes who you’re targeting and why, but persona development goes even further. Demographics are only the tip of the iceberg. These personas provide an understanding of emotions, behaviors, and beliefs, which will aid in making better decisions about website interactions and features.

Use the following questions to create one to three specific character personas.

  • What is the age, gender, location, occupation, and relationship status of your user? Write a few paragraphs and create a bio.
  • What are the needs of your user? What does your user require help with?
  • What worries or frustrations does your user have?
  • Which device is your user more likely to access your website from? Smartphone, laptop, or tablet? Does the device change how they will interact?
  • What will your user hope to achieve by using your website?
  • Which apps does your user engage with? Which social media platforms do they check daily, and which do they regularly upload content to?
  • What kind of personality type does your user have?
  • Does your user have any specific ethical beliefs and values?
  • How does your user spend their leisure time?
  • What kind of content interests your user? Which websites are they already frequenting?
  • What motivates your user?

Image Source: Xtensio

2. Information Architecture

The way information is presented on websites will affect usability, functionality, and satisfaction levels. Before the design phase begins, strategize about the best way to display content for the ultimate benefit of the user.

  • Organize your navigation in a way that reduces time and mental effort from the user to create a positive experience.
  • Group content together based on activities undertaken by users as well as business strategy. Rank your content in different scenarios. Don’t make anyone jump from one page and back again when it’s not necessary.
  • Pay attention to flow and natural progression of steps taken to achieve the specific goals of the user. Undertake task flow diagrams and functional mapping.

Image Source: Entrepreneurship Life

3. Interface Design

Design in a way that reflects what you’ve found out about your users. You want to make your website stand out and look attractive, but if you’re only focused on showing off your flashy design skills, you may end up alienating the user and compromising usability. Keep the principles and elements from earlier in mind.

  • Develop a style guide to remain consistent and in alignment with the website’s purpose. This generally involves a color palette featuring a few primary and secondary colors, icons or logos, and typography schemes.
  • Create a design that is visually appealing yet not overwhelming or distracting from the overall goal of the user.
  • Create wireframes to determine the best way to arrange elements.
  • Prioritize usability, easy navigation, and simple presentation of information.
  • Make your design responsive for all device sizes.

Image Source: Canva

 4. User Testing

Testing is crucial in order to get feedback on whether your design is achieving the desired results and meeting the anticipated needs of users.

Don’t overlook or underestimate evaluating and analyzing. Even if you think your design is perfect, there can always be simple things you’ve overlooked.

Remember, users will behave intuitively. They may even discover a simpler way to interact with your website. Embrace this and support the behavior of your users.

  • Watch users interact with your systems in real world scenarios to monitor behaviors and identify problems.
  • Review your competitors and see how your design can stand out.
  • Collaborate with other disciplines and departments. Make sure to get input from other teams to ensure that the needs of your business are being met as well.
  • Seek actionable advice from usability analysts.

User-Centered Design is Cyclical

In summary, your website design must be user-centered in order to retain customer satisfaction, achieve your business goals, and stay ahead of the competition. Keeping your customers in mind throughout every step of the process ensures your website will be fully functional and serve its intended purpose with ease.

It’s important to remember that user-centered design is an iterative process. The needs of the user can and will change, so be ready to adapt and make changes accordingly. Regular testing and always being open to feedback will allow you to stay user-centered.

As time goes on, personas may need to be refined and interfaces redesigned. Come back to the principles and elements outlined and re-familiarize yourself with the web design process whenever necessary.

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