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User-centered design: the biggest “duh” moment in tech

By Evan Wade / May 6, 2013

If you’re in software, an industry that creates more buzzwords per annum than every other tech sector combined, you’ve likely heard the phrase “user-centered design.” But unlike an email that uses the word “leverage” eight times, there are a lot of good ideas behind this bland corporate phrase.

The basics

How many interfaces do you rely on in order to perform your day-to-day tasks? How many have confusing menus or frustrating design quirks? A great way to avoid these pains: involving the end user more intimately at every stage of development. After all, it’s better to have surgeon-designed software than to be operated on by a computer programmer. And while neither is optimal, UCD can help bridge the gap between the two.

Influential backers

It’s probably fair to say IBM knows what it’s doing when it comes to making things. Their comprehensive take on user-centered design — a worthwhile read — is way more interesting and persuasive than any technical document has the right to be, which says something about their dorky passion for the concept. It’s also incredibly deep, with enough data to send any casual browser on a serious info-binge. No amount of care will turn a detail document into a national bestseller, but this is pretty darn close. On the opposite end of the computing spectrum, the award-winning devices from Fisher-Price further prove the idea’s weight with big-name businesses. Even if the latter design centers around computers with animal names on the keys.

For the developer

In a Smashing Magazine post on UCD in mobile software design, Lyndon Cerejo takes a page from IBM’s book in recommending the use of personas, or fictional users, that best embody the type of person expected to do the content. Building a larger spot for your clients during the development cycle, he says, is all about asking the right questions. In development, taking the users along for the ride streamlines things from the get-go, giving you a greater idea of what they want prior to launch while reducing the potential horrors of a relaunch.

In the enterprise

“Thanks in no small part to tech companies,” a Huffington Post update says, “the idea of user-centered design is everywhere.” Its author, Jethro Heiko, goes on to explain how he and others are working towards a human-centered workplace. The end goal? An office chock full of employee-friendly practices, such as the four-day work week. Are you getting excited yet? Flexibility, a core UCD concept, shows up in spades, with protocols for “designing, testing and improving upon work practices (and tools) that are customized to fit [employees].” Stressed employees generally feel the pain in their personal and professional lives. From business and ethical standpoints — not to mention the sheer thrill of working 20% less for the same pay — it’s always good to see the little guy get a nod from the suits upstairs.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter whether you’re designing a mobile web page, making an app or even shaping office culture. Once you’ve taken the basic tenets and applied them to your own products and proclivities, you’re well on the way to a user-focused experience.