Guidelines for User-Centered Design


From C. Pancake, 1997,"Improving the Quality of Numerical Software through User-Centered Design," in The Quality of Numerical Software: Assessment and Enhancement, ed. R. Boisvert, Chapman & Hall, London, pp. 44-60.


  1. Focus on the users and their needs. Before even beginning to plan new software, ask these questions:
  2. Carry out a detailed analysis of users' tasks and task environment. The first step in UCD is to study the intended audience. Visit customer sites and meet with potential users (installers and support staff, as well as end users). Make sure you understand the users' current task structure: how the users currently accomplish the tasks, what their underlying logical model is and how it is organized into sub-tasks, and typical strategies and problem work-arounds. Then, make an educated guess about what their future strategies will be (remember that using a system changes users' attitudes).

    Based on the task analysis, use a task-oriented organization for the interface. Establish what users tasks need to be supported. Visually identify the key tasks in some way, and make the tasks self-explanatory.


  3. Carry out early testing and evaluation with users. Expose representative groups of users to paper prototypes and ask them what they expect will happen, or what they think a representation means. Capitalize on the phenomenon of attention as a searchlight. Pay close attention to where users are focusing their attention; nothing else is being processed mentally. Use this information to restructure the interface so that it seems more "natural" to the user.


  4. Design iteratively with many cycles of design / user-test / redesign. Capitalize on the phenomenon of selective attention by watching how user attention shifts from one area of the interface to another during tests. Use this information to avoid elements that are distracting. If a switch in attention needs to be made, make sure it has significant content. Use think-aloud protocols so you can understand the users' logic. If something isn't clear, always re-design it, even if you're convinced that it should have been obvious to the user. Refine the design incrementally, so that you benefit from each round of testing.

User-Centered Design

(From IBM -

User-Centered Design is a well established process that has been widely adopted by many organizations to deliver products that meet users' expectations. IBM has regularly enhanced this process, which has now been consolidated within the broader framework of User Engineering. For completeness, the key information on User-Centered Design is retained for reference.

What is User-Centered Design?

How do designers come up with an interface that's not in your face? That just does what you want, and doesn't make you waste time doing what it wants? Easy-to-use software doesn't just happen. It requires focusing on the product's potential users from the very beginning, and checking at each step of the way with these users to be sure they will like and be comfortable with the final design. The User-Centered Design (UCD) process starts by forming a multi-disciplinary UCD project team. This team will work with the product's users throughout the design process and beyond. So the first thing that the UCD team must figure out is: 
Who will be using the product?

Once this target audience has been identified, representative users can be recruited to work with the team. These users help establish the requirements for the product by answering questions such as:

  • What do you want the product to do for you?
  • In what sort of environment will you be using the product?
  • What are your priorities when using the software? For example, which functions will you use most often?

The answers to these questions start the process of user task analysis.

Another important set of issues concern the product's competition, which includes not only other products but also any other means the target users have for completing their tasks. Again, users are consulted to help designers understand how to make their product competitive:

  • How are you doing these tasks today?
  • What do you like and dislike about the way you've been getting your tasks done?

When the users' task requirements and the competing methods are understood, the design can start to take shape. A trial set of objects and views is designed to support the main user tasks.

To test the design so far, the team puts together a preliminary version called a prototype.  Prototypes can be as simple as pieces of paper with proposed screen designs sketched on them, or so developed that they look like finished products, but most prototypes fall somewhere between these extremes. A prototype may not have all the function that will be in the product, but it has enough to test some part of the design. Test participants recruited from the target audience try out the prototype, and their task performance, reactions, and comments help the designers decide what to keep and what to change about the design. The design goes into a cycle of modification and re-testing until it meets functional and usability criteria.

At this point, a pre-release, or beta, version of the product may be constructed and distributed to a restricted set of users for their evaluation. Unlike the test prototypes, this version should have all the function planned for the actual product. It also can contain extra software to record usage information, such as how often the users refer to Help or run into problems with the product. The information gathered from users of the beta release can help the UCD team fine-tune the product for its formal release.

Finally, the tweaking stops and the product is released. But the user input doesn't end there. Users participate in benchmark assessments in which the product is rated against both the users' requirements and its competitive products. Customer service also records and tracks any problems reported by users. The problem reports help the designers know what to improve in the next iteration of the product.

Throughout the entire development process and beyond, users play a critical role in the design of easy-to-use products. After all, who knows more about which products are easy to use than the people who use them?

User-Centered Design principles

Meeting the ease of use challenge is largely a matter of adhering to the following principles. For each principle, the goal is to involve users -- to ask the right people the right questions. Putting yourself in their shoes is a sure way to put your product at the front of the pack.

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

Understand users.  A commitment to understand and involve the intended user is essential to the design process. If you want a user to understand your product, you must first understand the user.

Assess competitiveness.  Superior design requires ongoing awareness of the competition and its customers. Once you understand your users' tasks, you must test those same tasks against competitive alternatives and compare their results with yours.

Design the total user experience. Everything a user sees and touches is designed together by a multidisciplinary team. This includes the way a product is advertised, ordered, bought, packaged, maintained, installed, administered, documented, upgraded and supported. 

Evaluate designs.  User feedback is gathered early and often, using prototypes of widely ranging fidelity, and this feedback drives product design and development.

Manage by continual user observation.  Throughout the life of the product, continue to monitor and listen to your users, and let their feedback inform your responses to market changes and competitive activity.

User-Centered Design process
Dominos picture

The goal of the IBM User-Centered Design process is to ensure that the final product fulfills the users' wishes and needs. To achieve this goal, the first step is to form the multidisciplinary UCD Project Team. The project team includes representatives of the fields of  visual or industrial design, human factors, information development, marketing, project management, service and support, technology architecture, and user interface design.

The Project Team then solicits user input throughout the design process. Below is a description of the six stages in the UCD design process, and some possible methods for gathering user input during each stage.

Market Definition. Define the target audience, identify competitors, and determine the core user needs and wishes that must be fulfilled for the product to succeed.

Typical methods: ask members of proposed target audiences to rate their levels of interest in a new product or product enhancement; ask target users to list and prioritize their needs and identify current solutions they use and prefer

Task Analysis. Identify and understand the users' goals and tasks, the strategies they use to perform the tasks, the tools they currently use, any problems they experience, and the changes they would like to see in their tasks and tools.

Typical methods: ask users to list and prioritize tasks; observe users accomplishing their tasks

Competitive Evaluation. Determine the design strengths and weaknesses of the competition.

Typical methods: ask users to complete the same tasks using different products and assess their overall satisfaction with each one; ask them to list the strengths and weaknesses of products in order of importance

Design and Walk-through. Using the results from task and competitive analyses, create alternative proposed solutions, solicit feedback through design walk-through sessions with users, and choose a solution based on user input.

Typical methods: ask users to evaluate "lo-fi" prototypes such as simple sketches


Evaluation and Validation. Periodically solicit user feedback on the evolving design, and iterate the design based on analysis of users' experiences with it.

Typical methods: observe users accomplishing important tasks with a working prototype


Benchmark Assessment. Run a head-to-head benchmark assessment against the competition to verify that the product has met its primary objectives. If a third-party company conducts the benchmark study, positive results can become important selling points in product promotions.

Typical methods: ask users to complete the same tasks using different products and assess their overall satisfaction with each one; ask them to list the strengths and weaknesses of products in order of importance

For any single product, the process is usually recursive. For instance, periodic Benchmark Assessments typically uncover changes in the market and new user needs, which leads to a new Market Definition, and the process begins anew.

Adopting User-Centered Design

User-Centered Design (UCD) offers businesses a number of critical advantages. It enables them to develop easy-to-use products, satisfy customers, decrease expenditures on technical support and training, advertise ease-of-use successes, and ultimately increase market share. Despite these advantages, many organizations do not practice UCD. Instead, technologically savvy developers often assume they understand the needs of common users and that UCD is implicit in their designs. These assumptions often allow the technology itself to guide the development of products. The difficulty of adopting UCD within such environments requires attention.

This article describes strategies that IBM and industry colleagues have found particularly effective for overcoming the difficulty of adopting UCD within such environments. The strategies are divided into two sections: Getting Started and Staying Committed.

Getting started  Strategies for persuading your organization to adopt User-Centered Design.

Staying committed  Strategies for ensuring the success of User-Centered Design.

Getting started


Simplify the message

The first communication of the UCD approach needs to be simple and powerful. With a simple message, an organization is less likely to enter the "yeah, but" mode: "yeah, but it looks too complicated," or "yeah, but it looks like it will take too much time, too much money, too many people." The UCD approach is simple and affordable, and the communication of the approach should give this impression.

Tailor your messages to the concerns of each audience

Different members of your organization will have different concerns about adopting UCD. Developers may be concerned about delays in the development cycle. Executives may be concerned about overblown budgets. Addressing the concerns of different audiences will help you convince them that your organization will benefit from UCD.

Demonstrate the problems poor usability causes your organization

Organizations that do not practice user-centered design methods usually show the signs:  dissatisfied customers, unproductive users, exorbitant training and support costs, decreasing or stagnant market share, and/or overblown development schedules and costs.  The more data you can find to illustrate the extent of the problem, the more likely your organization will be to embrace change.

Provide evidence that demonstrates the value of UCD

You will need to provide a justification for adopting UCD. The most convincing evidence will come from UCD projects in your own organization. If you do not have data from your own organization, use data from outside research on cost-justifying usability. The Cost Justification article will help you get started. When beginning UCD projects, focus on goals that are important to your organization. Then collect both quantitative and qualitative evidence to demonstrate the value of UCD in achieving these goals. Quantitative measurements include user productivity, user satisfaction, development time, development costs, sales and revenue, training and help desk costs, and maintenance costs. Qualitative evidence includes user testimonials or comments from third-party product reviewers.

Again, the measurements and evidence you choose will depend largely upon the goals you want to achieve with UCD. For instance, if your organization wants to use UCD to reduce training costs, then you might want to compare the training costs for an application before and after it has been redesigned using UCD.

The difficulty in demonstrating the value of usability lies in tying attainment of the goals to the UCD effort. In our experience at IBM, we have found that any single successful UCD effort does not offer enough proof to make the case for UCD. Rather, what does seem effective is showing that as UCD permeates an organization, the overall quality of products with regard to meeting user wants and needs improves. This requires both time for the UCD process to gain momentum, and the careful tracking of UCD efforts and their results.

Establish a set of UCD Principles

UCD Principles succinctly define and communicate the essence of the UCD process. Limit the number of principles to five or six so that they are easy to remember. An example of a good set of principles appears below.

  • Set Business Goals: Determining the target market, intended users, and primary competition is central to all design and user participation.
  • Understand Users: A commitment to understand and involve the intended user is essential to the design process.
  • Design the Total Experience: Everything a user sees and touches is designed together by a multidisciplinary team.
  • Evaluate Designs: User feedback is gathered early and often, and this feedback drives product design.
  • Assess Competitiveness: Superior design requires ongoing awareness of the competition and its customers.
  • Manage by continual user observation: User feedback is integral to product plans, priorities, and decision making.


Ask key members within your organization to assist you in developing the organizationally-specific principles. Their input will help ensure that the core statements are appropriate for your organization. Allowing these key players to tailor UCD for the organization will also help bring them on board, and you will need their support to succeed.

Use simple messages to promote the need for UCD

Poster: Computing is about people, not machines. Simple messages, like the ones below, focus attention on the need for UCD. Use messages like these in presentations and other communications.

IBM messages for promoting UCD
Is your technology showing?
Nobody buys ease of use. But nobody buys products without it either.
Ease of use may be invisible, but its absence sure isn’t.
Want to make the most of the e-business opportunity? Easy does it.
Do you know who your users are?
Learn from experience the user’s.
Engineering the killer app isn’t exactly child’s play. But using it better be.

Provide UCD education

Although adopting UCD need not be complicated, it does require educating members of your organization. Educate people in your organization by offering everything from overviews to a full-fledged series of classes. For best results, tailor the material to the specific requirements of your organization. Include several examples relevant to your company’s products, and try to make the sessions interactive and experiential.

Larger organizations may want to develop their own classes customized to their specific needs. However, other organizations may want to employ outside specialists. IBM uses four types of education: awareness, executive, introductory, and advanced. The amount and types of education you choose to provide depends on your organization and objectives. For instance, if you’re in a company of five employees including the CEO, then you may not need a specific program for awareness education. If you want a little more focus on the user within your organization, but really don’t intend for your products to be known for ease of use, then you may want to reduce the education you offer to a combined awareness/introductory presentation offering a couple of UCD methods for improving the focus on users. If, on the other hand, you work in a large organization and want to dramatically increase the ease of use of your products, you’ll want to provide the four types of education recommended here.

Awareness education communicates the essence and value of UCD. It can take the form of a 15-60 minute introductory presentation or a short video. A video can be distributed from organization to organization, thereby minimizing the risk of inconsistent messages from multiple persons presenting different perspectives on UCD.

One way to increase awareness of UCD is to create a logo or visual identifier, and display it on such things as mugs, shirts, and mouse pads. Give these to graduates of UCD classes, employees who provided good suggestions for how to do UCD better within your company, etc. After a while, many people within your organization will recognize and understand the identifier.

UCD Graphic

Executive Education is for senior managers who need to be aware of key UCD concepts and know how to lead an organization using UCD. This education is vital because executives determine the organization's goals and strategies, allocate resources, and communicate the organization's direction.

Our experience shows that a case-based, two-to-four hour class works best with executives. Executives analyze problems and propose solutions. Groups typically compete to come up with the best answers that they present back to the group. This approach reveals key UCD learning points through progressive disclosure.

Introductory Education communicates the essence of the UCD process. It takes the form of a one-day class or a web-based tutorial. This education provides examples of how the various aspects of User-Centered Design are actually carried out. The objective is to make sure all members of the organization understand and support UCD. For example, it ensures that financial officers approve the spending for recruiting UCD participants. All UCD multidisciplinary teams need to take this course before starting a UCD project.

Advanced Education is necessary for members of a multidisciplinary team assigned to a UCD project. Team members learn their individual and collective roles and responsibilities via experiential exercises. The class typically takes the form of a two-day workshop.

Get the right set of skills

Getting the right people and the best skills is critical to the success of UCD. Although specific job titles may differ from company to company, the specific roles, responsibilities, and skills are outlined in the table below.

UCD Team Lead
Responsibility: Has overall responsibility for UCD deliverables and plans as well as the integration of them into the development plan.
Skills: Project management, UCD process, development process

User Experience Design Lead
Responsibility: Has responsibility for the total user experience design of the project.
Skills: Vision, leadership, technical expertise, project and people management, facilitation

Visual or Industrial Designer
Responsibility: Has responsibility for the overall appearance, layout, balance of the software offering including the consistent visual signature of the advertising, packaging, and product design.
Skills: Art, design, model/prototype building, creativity, teamwork

HCI Designer
Responsibility: Responsible for specifying the task flow, interaction design, and division of tasks to be carried out by the user and by the computer.
Skills: Human-Computer Interaction, conceptual modeling, information synthesis

User Assistance Architect
Responsibility: Has responsibility to specify the appropriate user assistance mechanisms for the offering.
Skills: Information architecture, teamwork

Technology Architect
Responsibility: Has responsibility for specifying the underlying technology required to implement the desired total user experience.
Skills: Technical skill in relevant domain, development process, programming and/or engineering, teamwork

Marketing Specialist
Responsibility: Specifies the target market, user audience, key competitor, market ease of use objectives, and ease of use messages as well as the channel, packaging, and terms and condition requirements.
Skills: Marketing, market intelligence, market trends, synthesis of information, teamwork

Service/Support Specialist
Responsibility: Specifies the service and support that should be delivered with the offering.
Skills: Service/support technologies and options

Internationalization & Terminology Specialist
Responsibility: Ensures the offering addresses the needs of the international audience and specifies the terminology in the offering
Skills: Internationalization and localization specialization, terminology, languages, HL enablement

User Research Specialist
Responsibility: Has responsibility for the design, analysis, and interpretation of User-Centered Design studies carried out on the project including the articulation of recommendations coming from this applied research.
Skills: Usability Engineering, technical aptitude, UCD methods

When beginning a project, conduct a "Have/Need" Analysis to determine who on the team will be fulfilling each role. Determine if skills are missing or duplicated, and reconfigure the multidisciplinary team as needed.

Common problems experienced when establishing a UCD project team include the following.

  • Some organizations fail to see the need for Visual Designers and think they only need Human Factors specialists
  • New media companies often fail to see the need for Human Factors specialists and think they only need Visual Designers
  • Many teams fail to include marketing in the multidisciplinary design team
  • Many organizations fail to recruit appropriate individuals to serve as UCD Project Leaders or User Experience Design Leads
  • Organizations not familiar with skills such as Visual Design or Human Factors often expect others to "pick up" these skills, or they hire individuals with these skills but with insufficient training and/or experience.

An excellent way to avoid these problems is by hiring a consulting organization to help you get started and especially to provide the requisite experienced specialized skills. After the first successful project or two, work can start on acquiring and building these skills within the organization. Consultants can often help with this as well.

In large companies, a database of individual specialists can aid in the selection of professionals for projects.

Include the right methods

When beginning a project, plan the activities necessary for the successful implementation of UCD. To facilitate this planning, we use a Sample UCD Plan, which appears below. This sample plan contains a list of possible UCD activities, inputs to these activities, and expected deliverables.

During a kickoff, the UCD team discusses each of these activities in relation to the current project. For some projects, activities will already have been completed. For instance, other teams or organizations may have already defined the target audience, competition and/or user requirements. In this case, the UCD team will not need to gather market data, but rather, interface with the organizations that gathered this data. UCD is not a "one size fits all" process. It should be customized to meet the needs of any individual project.

UCD Activities During Design Stages

Market Definition
Deliverables: Audience definition, identification of prime competitor(s), competitive advantage objective, a definition of the new product or product enhancement
User Feedback Data: Market data, customer requirements

Task Analysis
Activity: Evaluate market data and customer requirements, develop an audience and customer description, evaluate task analysis data
Deliverable: A customer description for recruiting task analysis participants
User Feedback Data: Current and future tasks plus task attributes, typical scenarios of use

Competitor Evaluation
Activity: Prepare for competitive evaluation, evaluate competitor evaluation data
Deliverable: Tasks and scenarios to be used in evaluation
User Feedback Data: Competitor’s strengths, weaknesses, and impact; users’ satisfaction with competitor; benchmarks

Design and Walk-through
Activity: Set high-level design objectives; identify model, metaphors, main
messages, and alternative design solutions; propose alternative design solutions, choose a solution based on user input
Deliverable: Lo-fi prototypes of high-level designs and/or mockups for design walk-through, "go or no go" recommendation based on users’ response to the high-level design
User Feedback Data: Users’ satisfaction and their intent to purchase, users’ reaction to the high-level design

Evaluation and Validation
Activity: Set specific design objectives, alternatives; prototype, evaluate, and validate designs; hold low-level design reviews; iterate the design based on analysis of users' experiences with it
Deliverable: Lo-fi prototypes of specific design solutions
User Feedback Data: Users’ reactions to low-level designs, comparisons to competitor benchmark data

Benchmark Assessment
Activity: Run a head-to-head benchmark assessment against the competition, evaluate benchmark assessment data, target changes for future releases
Deliverable: Ship recommendation
User Feedback Data: Users' satisfaction and their intent to purchase, comparisons to benchmarks

Carefully select a pilot project

Rather than implement UCD all at once throughout a large organization, select a pilot project. One project will be much easier to manage than several. Also, your organization may not have enough trained staff to begin several projects all at once.

You can choose any project, but we recommend selecting the pilot project carefully since team members will be learning the process, and UCD will be judged according to the project's success. The ideal project:

  • Presents an opportunity to impact the design of a product
  • Is reasonably small and self-contained
  • Has team members who possess all the necessary UCD skills

Problems result when organizations go with the first project someone suggests, select a project that is "high risk" either because it is a new technology or because it is already late or over budget, or select a project that has multiple dependencies such as third-party suppliers or multiple development sites.

Remember to establish goals in your pilot project that are important to your organization, and collect data that demonstrates the value of UCD in achieving those goals. For instance, if an important organization goal is to improve customer satisfaction, collect before-and-after data that shows the improvement in customer satisfaction. When the pilot project is complete and a success, share details of the project, including the indicators of its success, across the company. Also ask members of the design team to share their own experiences with UCD.

Staying committed

Take advantage of every opportunity to integrate UCD into the organization

After completing a pilot project and achieving some initial success using UCD, you will want to expand your efforts. If you consider opportunities to advance UCD in your company as trains leaving a station, you should get on every one of those trains to increase your chances of success. Guard against the temptation to evaluate options and choose only one route. If that one route doesn’t pan out, then your whole introduction of UCD fails. You may think that if one route doesn’t pan out, you can then get on the next train. However, this serial approach to introducing UCD will simply take too long. The fastest route to getting greater ease of use is the most desirable route.

If your company is doing some process re-engineering, include UCD in the process documentation. Also consider integrating UCD into performance plans, executive compensation, employee awards, and corporate and/or product positioning.

Secure appropriate funding

Securing appropriate funding is key to the successful introduction of UCD. The funding could be a re-allocation of funds from another part of the organization. In one case at IBM, a part of the market research budget was re-allocated to the "getting started with UCD" budget. The development team was delighted with the results. UCD typically requires funding for:

Staffing: Many organizations need to add skills for Visual Design and User Research/Human Factors. Individuals with these skills are in high demand, so make sure you have flexibility in your budget to attract the most qualified person(s).

Tools and infrastructure: The most expensive infrastructure will be the UCD laboratory.

Competitor product acquisition: Competitor evaluation is a core aspect of User-Centered Design. As such, acquisition of products is essential. If the products are high-end and extremely expensive, you may want to use a creative alternative to purchasing the product.

Participant expenses: UCD requires a regular supply of study participants, and you will need to provide incentives to encourage participation. Please refer to Recruiting Participants for more information on this topic.

Project plan support: Many organizations fail to plan for the impact of UCD and ease of use on the project plan itself. Determine up front the major ease-of-use objectives for the product and the resources required to meet those objectives.

Identify UCD Champions

Identifying UCD Champions helps maintain the focus on UCD and advance the cause. UCD Champions lead the company/division’s drive to User-Centered Design and Ease of Use and work closely with the Corporate Leaders to coordinate and optimize company-wide UCD deployment and execution.

The objectives of the UCD Champions are to:

  • Drive UCD into the business, and ensure the quality and execution of action plans
  • Review UCD funding, staffing, resources, salaries, awards, job levels, and attrition
  • Ensure that performance plan commitments (for executives and line managers) contain appropriate UCD actions and ease-of-use targets
  • Ensure that UCD practitioners’ skills are continually strengthened through internal and external contacts (education, conferences, workshops, and newsletters)
  • Develop and maintain knowledge of the entire UCD process and share knowledge freely with other practitioners
  • Track the key UCD metrics and report progress to executives

The advocates of UCD within the organization need to be effective leaders and agents for change. They should also be very supportive of the UCD effort and influential in the company.

Optimize your organization structure

In large organizations, or organizations with multiple products, organizational structure is very important to the long-term success of UCD. For the core UCD disciplines, such as Visual and Industrial Design, Human Computer Interaction, User Assistance, and User Research, companies tend to gravitate to one of two organizational models, centralized or non-centralized. In the centralized model, professionals are in one central group and are assigned to particular projects. Their assignments are flexible, and they can learn from one another, but they are often not seen as a core part of the development team since they belong to a different group. In the non-centralized model, professionals from different disciplines report directly to the product groups. They are core members of the product development team, but they have little contact with their peers in the same discipline.

We propose a new approach that combines the advantages of both traditional models. In the UCD matrix model, professionals are assigned to particular projects while at the same time remaining part of discipline Centers of Competence. The Centers of Competence provide employees with technical vitality and career development. They also provide information regarding which specialists may be the most appropriate for upcoming projects.

Diagram: UCD professionals

In this organizational structure, UCD professionals are a core part
of product groups, yet they remain in close contact with people
throughout the company who work in their respective disciplines.

Create UCD infrastructure

Although labs are not the most important ingredient to UCD, they are important in the long run. We recommend creating separate participant and observation rooms.

Participant Room: The participant room simulates, as much as possible, the environment in which the product would most likely be used. It also has cameras to capture participants’ facial expressions, their hand movements, and their use of manuals. The cameras are sometimes mounted in the ceiling and hidden from view.

Photograph: Observation Lab

Observation Room: The participant and observation rooms are divided by one-way glass and a sound-resistant wall. This arrangement facilitates observation while minimizing interference in the test proceedings. Observers use a microphone to ask participants a question, or direct them to begin another task.

Control Panel: The observation room often contains the following:

  • VCR decks--records input from cameras and microphones in the participant room
  • Logger--software that enables observers to note the participant’s important actions and comments along with the time of the comment
  • Video Editing Suite--enables practitioners to create highlight videos
  • Scan Converter--records the participant’s computer screen and allows the observer to zoom in on particular parts of the screen

Portable Labs: An alternative or adjunct to a fixed UCD lab is a portable lab. Several vendors provide pre-built or custom-developed portable labs that can be taken relatively easily on the road to visit customers in their place of work or at conferences. Some of these are wireless for flexibility and convenient setup.

Track progress by using UCD metrics

To maintain momentum and focus, routinely review deployment progress as well as detailed progress on particular projects. Use a common set of UCD metrics for all reviews. The metrics should summarize the key elements that are important in the management of UCD. These key metrics will ensure that different groups are using the same measures and that managers and executives can review various projects quickly and easily.

The IBM UCD Report, which appears below, requires teams to establish ease-of-use goals and measure progress meeting those goals. It includes:

  • General project information, such as the name of the UCD Project Leader and the target user audience
  • Specific ease of use objectives for a product release and the status achieving these objectives
  • Current and target customer satisfaction measures
  • Enablement information (e.g. schedule and budget)
  • The number of severity 1, 2, and 3 user problems and percent fixed
  • A list of user problems and the status fixing each
  • The total number of hours users have been involved in the development of the product

Table: UCD Report

Project Teams use the UCD Report Template
to record and track various UCD metrics.

Maintain and develop staff skills

A focus on maintaining the technical vitality of specialists is critical to the long-term success of UCD. User research/human factors specialists and visual designers, for example, need to participate in conferences, workshops, and on-line discussion groups to remain abreast of new developments in their disciplines.

The marketplace for UCD skills is very competitive, and a dissatisfied employee can very quickly find a new job elsewhere. Thus, employees need to be given work assignments and responsibilities that are challenging and interesting. If particular projects lack these ingredients, consider assigning additional work to provide this opportunity. If a company’s products are uninteresting from a visual design point of view, for example, consider giving the visual designer additional responsibilities, such as the role of creating a web site. The employ will be more satisfied and more likely to stay with the company, and the organization will receive the added bonus of a new site.

Acknowledge successes

Recognize and celebrate successes to provide evidence that UCD works and encourage others to adopt it. Any new design approach is bound to lead to some skepticism in any organization. The following techniques increase exposure and help replace the skepticism with confidence:

  • Post articles or reviews citing your ease-of-use accomplishments on bulletin boards and frame them in executive offices or conference rooms
  • Create posters that cite positive ease-of-use reviews
  • Present awards to teams who design successful products with UCD
  • Hold an "open house" or "demo day" in which teams that have created successful products show others the benefits of the UCD approach

Communicate, communicate, communicate

A final critical success factor when introducing and deploying UCD concerns the quantity and quality of communication. Don’t assume that you can get something like this started and then just let it run on its own. Ultimate success depends on continuous communication--among professionals on the multidisciplinary design team, between the team and the rest of the development organization, between the team and executive management.

You should also communicate your successes to your customers. Brag a little! Usability is an important sales message.

Cost justifying ease of use
Complex solutions are problems


At any instant, millions of people around the world are trying to use or do something that is difficult or confusing. They may be trying to find a product, trying to figure out how a product works, trying to get service for a product, or trying to replace it. Eventually and inevitably, they will begin to lose time and patience. And, no matter what particular answer they are looking for, the question they pose will be the same: "Why would anyone make something this confusing?"

It's a good question. At IBM, we wonder the same thing ourselves. We know consumers benefit greatly from ease of use; we know making a product easy makes it easier on the customer. We know that making it easier on the customer increases customer loyalty. Products that are easy to use lead to increased customer satisfaction, and satisfied customers return again and again. So ease of use actually increases business.

On the other hand, we're also aware that consumers aren't the only ones who reap rewards from usable products. Companies that invest in ease of use enjoy benefits of their own. Around the globe, across a range of industries, studies have proven it time and again. Whether you are in the business of producing products, or purchasing product for your employees, usability equals profitability. And, that's the bottom line.

Making it easy

For developers and manufacturers, the advantages of creating usable products far outweigh the costs. The rule of thumb: every dollar invested in ease of use returns $10 to $100.

In today's market, usable products are desirable products. Ease of use differentiates them in a highly competitive market place. Ease of use brings an added value that culminates in a higher degree of customer satisfaction, continued business and higher revenues. In fact, studies conducted by usability expert Dr. Clare-Marie Karat show that companies committed to ease of use do more than meet customer expectations, they can actually exceed anticipated earnings.

An ounce of prevention

At the same time, incorporating ease of use into your products actually saves money. Reports have shown it is far more economical to consider user needs in the early stages of design, than it is to solve them later. For example, in Software Engineering: A Practitioner's Approach, author Robert Pressman shows that for every dollar spent to resolve a problem during product design, $10 would be spent on the same problem during development, and multiply to $100 or more if the problem had to be solved after the product's release. Simply stated, the lesson is clear: It is far less expensive to prevent a problem occurring in the first place than to fix it later. And one of the best ways to prevent problems from occurring, and to protect your development investment at the same time, is to keep your users/customers involved through the entire development cycle.

Overlooking customer expectations doesn't just waste money, it wastes time. As a matter of fact, Dr. Karat has demonstrated that focussing on ease of use can actually advance a product's release date. Equally compelling is the fact that those who skip ease of use in the design phase can end up spending 80% of their service costs on unforeseen user requirements down the road.

Overall, pursuing ease of use is found to be a great investment when you consider the likely payoff. By making it a priority you not only satisfy your customer, you streamline the operation by improving product design and development, you save costs by reducing development time, training and maintenance expenses, and you succeed in getting your product - a better product - to the market sooner.

Finding it easy

Organizations that develop easy-to-use products are not alone in making gains. Companies that purchase or produce usable systems for their employees also see impressive returns on their investment.

When you buy into the concept of ease of use, business benefits. Organizations that ensure their employees are furnished with easy-to-use products see dramatic reductions in training time and, subsequently, great reductions in training cost. In certain cases, training sessions have been shortened from one week to a day or an hour, saving the companies thousands or even millions of dollars. Significant savings of help-desk calls and service costs are another added bonus when products are made to meet user needs.

In this case, usability translates into productivity. When business processes are based on ease of use, according to Dr. Karat's findings, there is an increase in employee satisfaction. What's more, easy-to-use, intuitive systems have proven to cut transaction time in half - which, companies report, results in improved productiveness, and enough savings to cover the cost of the new system in the first year alone.

Still, that's not all ease of use has to offer. By creating a higher rate of employee satisfaction along with improved performance, it produces a chain reaction that leads directly, and ultimately, to more satisfied customers. And satisfied customers provide the base for business growth and competitive success.

In the end, easy does it. It makes business effective. It makes business efficient. It makes business sense.

Related Studies:

  • Karat, C. (1997). Cost-justifying usability engineering in the software life cycle. In Helander, M., Landauer, T., and Prabhu, P. (Eds), Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction. Elsevier Science, Amsterdam.
  • Karat, C. (1990). Cost-benefit analysis of usability engineering techniques. Proceedings of the Human Factors Society. Orlando. Fl.
  • Norman, D. (1998). The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail. MIT Press, MA.
  • Moore, G. (1991). Crossing the Chasm. Harper Business, NY.
  • Pressman, R.S. (1992). Software Engineering: A Practitioner's Approach. McGraw Hill, NY.
  • Schlesinger, L.A., and Heskett, J.L. (1991). A service driven service company. Harvard Business Review, 69, 5, 71-81.
  • Wildstrom, S. (1998). A computer user's manifesto. In Technology and You, Business Week, Sept. 28.

User-Centered Design FAQ

The following are questions that we frequently encounter and our responses to them. Please email us any additional questions you may have.

What is UCD?
User-Centered Design is a method for designing ease of use into the total user experience with products. It enables organizations to consistently develop engaging products that are easy to buy, easy to set up, easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to upgrade. It calls for a multidisciplinary team to design everything the user sees and touches and to gather user input and feedback during each stage of the development process.

What is the distinction between ease of use and UCD?
Ease of use is an attribute we want our products to have, and User-Centered Design is the method we use and advocate for getting ease of use into products.

Is the goal to have developers automatically incorporate UCD into their timeline?
Yes, just like good hygiene, UCD should become a natural thing to do for all members of an organization, and for all products and services that have users. Just like you wouldn't leave home without brushing your teeth, project teams shouldn't deliver designs without getting user input on them.

Is User-Centered Design just another word for "usability testing"?
Usability testing is one of the methods used in UCD, but UCD is much more comprehensive. UCD focuses heavily on understanding users and gathering input and feedback from them throughout the development cycle. UCD also calls for a multidisciplinary team to design every part of a product that the user sees, hears, and touches. Organizations that simply test products usually do not optimize ease of use.

Is UCD only appropriate for products with pervasive graphical user interfaces?
No. It is appropriate for any kind of product a user is going to use. It is being used in other companies to design everything from power station control rooms to toasters.

Doesn't UCD involve a lot of heavy process and complicated methods?
No. Any process documentation provided on UCD should serve only as a guide. Sometimes other groups or teams will have already collected user data for a market definition and/or task analysis. Redoing work would be foolish. Also, some products or product enhancements may have few users or be relatively minor in significance. Multiple iterations of design and testing would not be sensible in these situations. Rather, teams must be free to adjust the level of investment in UCD according to the importance of the project.

Who needs to know about UCD in an organization?
Everyone! Many organizations expect specific groups or persons to specialize in UCD and then magically produce wonderful products throughout the company. The only way to ensure success is for all members of an organization to "live and breathe" user data and together drive ease of use into products and services.

How can UCD tools benefit Designers?
UCD tools simplify and expedite gathering user input and feedback. The more quickly the design team can gather user input and feedback, the more user data they are likely to gather and use that assists in the design of the product.

Does UCD involve decreasing management control over projects?
No. Quite the contrary. Management needs to demand user data, review it regularly, and manage design of product externals based on user input and feedback.

Do all product teams need to invest in UCD at the same high level?
Absolutely not. Investment in UCD involves a business decision. When beginning a project, executives and/or project teams need to establish their competitive advantage objectives, and these objectives should inform the level of investment in UCD. For instance, if one objective is to provide the easiest-to-use product on the market, the design project will likely require a substantial investment in UCD. On the other hand, if the goal is to offer the least expensive product in the market, then the project will naturally require a smaller investment in UCD. Establishing competitive advantage objectives and planning the UCD effort accordingly is critical to the success of all projects.

What is presented in UCD Executive Review Meetings?
Executives should be provided with a high level overview of the UCD status of a project. This overview includes critical UCD metrics, such as Top 5 User Problems, Ease of Use Objectives, User Satisfaction Ratings, etc.

What are the Top 5 User Problems when all level 1 problems have been fixed?
The Top 5 User Problems should always list the most severe problems that haven't yet been fixed. The project team then works to resolve these problems.

Do user problems have to come from users?
Although heuristic design reviews can be helpful in identifying problems, the top user problems need to be based on user feedback and/or observation of users interacting with the product. However, practitioners should use their professional judgement in interpreting user data and correcting problems. If, for example, a number of user problems all fit within one larger comprehensive category of problem, and it is better to drive a solution to the high-level problem, then do so.

What if my project doesn't have a true UCD multidisciplinary team?
Then you need to add the necessary people to your team. Ideally, members of the various disciplines work in one team, but they need not work physically in one location or meet regularly face-to-face. The only real requirement is to have the specialized skills necessary to design the total user experience contribute appropriately to the overall design of the product.

What is the difference between UCD and market research?
This is a common question. Fundamentally, market research focuses on understanding the market and such factors as high level requirements, buying triggers, and industry trends. UCD, on the other hand, focuses on understanding users and their tasks and on gathering their input on iterative designs of the product. In other words, market research determines what product should be built whereas UCD determines how it should be designed.

IBM's User-Centered Design labs

[leading group meeting] IBM has User-Centered Design (UCD) Laboratories at product development sites all over the world. In fact, IBM was one of the first companies to build these types of laboratories. The early labs were little more than Usability Labs with a couple of rooms, one for the participant and the other for the specialist, with a two-way mirror in between. Current UCD Laboratories are much more sophisticated as well as more flexible. They include rooms with equipment to study groups of users, rooms that optimize participatory design via low fidelity and high fidelity prototyping, and tools for recruiting users as well as technologies to study users remotely.

Electronically Linked Groups

[lecturer teaching class] We use the Electronic Group Lab equipped with LAN-based groupware to collect a variety of information from groups of users. We collect information about task requirements, task flow, current products, etc. as well as feedback on early mock-ups of products relative to current solutions. The lab includes a high-quality back projection system to display designs. The Electronic Group Lab allows us to use technology to ensure that we collect user information in the most effective and efficient manner possible. We can gather information from 20 users at a time in ways that ensures that all user's views are heard and all input is viewed anonymously by all participants simultaneously. The information collected is automatically stored in a UCD Lotus Notes database to ensure ready access by the UCD multidisciplinary design teams.

Trying Designs Out with Users

[3 people study paper prototype] Our Prototype Design Lab allows us to rapidly prototype alternative designs together with users in participatory design sessions. We start with low fidelity prototypes using a pencil and paper toolkit with paper window templates as well as colored sticky notes. Although our prototyping tools are can create these prototypes as quickly as pencil and paper can, we find that users are more willing to propose changes when the prototypes are low fidelity ones. We then use higher fidelity prototypes typically using IBM VisualAge. UCD multidisciplinary design teams use the Prototype Design Lab on a regular basis to resolve design issues on the team and use Lotus Notes running on ThinkPad computers to capture user feedback. Most teams typically schedule a user feedback session every week or every two weeks. Rather than discussing what users would want in team meetings, we simply ask users directly.

Test Driving the Design

[studying a user in a lab] The longest-established part of our UCD Lab Suite is the Usability Test Lab. IBM was one of the first computer companies to install these labs. We continue to use them to carry out hands-on tests of our products, both regularly scheduled small focused tests as well as large-scale cross-product tests. These labs include a room that simulates a user environment and an observation area for design team members with a two-way mirror inbetween. The observation area includes sophisticated video capture and scan conversion technology to record all aspects of the user experience with our products. Whereas the Prototype Design Lab is used for participatory design sessions with users and designers in the same room, the Usability Test Lab is used by teams when a more comprehensive and objective assessment is required.

Recruiting participants

Organizations have many options when recruiting and compensating UCD research participants. The best strategy is to give practitioners a choice of different recruiting and compensation methods.

Some recruiting methods are more expensive than others. Participants who visit your on-site UCD lab will generally receive greater reimbursement than participants who complete a survey remotely, because the lab sessions require more effort to attend and usually more of the participant’s time. Reimbursements and/or gifts also vary according to the qualifications of the participant. A database administrator will require greater reimbursement than an entry clerk, for example. If you experience difficulty recruiting participants for activities, you may need to increase the rate of reimbursement.

Below are some alternative resources for recruiting participants:

Research Firm: Research firms identify the potential candidates, call them to determine those who are interested, and then schedule them to suit your test schedule. Research firms can recruit participants for different types of UCD research, including evaluations of products, or eliciting user requirements for a product yet to be developed. The research firm can use a customer list that you provide or a purchased list as a starting point to search for participants in your target audience. The latter is preferred when you want to include participants currently using your competitor’s product. Research firms typically charge a recruiting fee for each participant, and the participants receive cash incentives. The cost of the recruiting and the incentive vary depending upon the difficulty of finding participants and the duration of the study.

Web Site Database: A database of Web survey participants can be a valuable resource for relatively quick survey feedback from users. Offer an incentive to encourage potential participants to sign up. The incentive can be a random drawing for a popular product developed by your company or another company. For example, IBM has run a "Win a ThinkPad" contest as the incentive for its recruiting database, and Lotus runs a monthly draw for a copy of its office productivity product set, SmartSuite. Other giveaways have included products like digital cameras, hand-held computers, etc. Instead of products, it is also possible to simply use money. That is, pay every person that puts their name in your recruiting database a set amount of money for doing so. Another creative approach is to provide participants the option of contributing to a charity of their choice for participating. Keep in mind that gifts such as mouse pads are easier to send than bulky items such as t-shirts and coffee mugs.

If you give participants a chance to win a prize, you will need to consult the sweepstakes and lottery laws. Each state within the United States has its own laws pertaining to contests like this and countries around the world also have their own individual laws. Contact a lawyer for further information on this.

Product Registration Database: You can also use product registration information available in your company. If you’re not using a search firm, a member of your staff will need to contact the candidates on the list, determine their interest, and then schedule those who are interested in participating in your studies. This work is rather tedious and, as a result, not particularly well suited to highly trained UCD specialists. A contract worker might be the person for this task.

Internal Participants: If you work in a large organization, or in a large office building with many other people, don’t forget that you have many potential participants just down the hall. At IBM, we provide gifts such as free lunch vouchers and movie tickets to encourage other IBMers to participate in various studies. This alternative works best for brief studies since these participants have other responsibilities, of course. Remember that the participants you recruit need to fit your target audience. For instance, if your target audience includes computer novices, don’t expect programmers to represent their perspective. That’s a recipe for disaster.