Are We There Yet? A Practical Guide to User-Centered Design

Here at Aten we advocate user-centered design as the essential methodology for building digital experiences that matter. We sell it in pitches. We focus quickly on audience during kick-off meetings—and practically every meeting after. We structure our process around personas and user stories, and measure success in terms of user acceptance.

But there are often obstacles. Subjective stakeholder feedback, committee-driven decision making and organizational politics can push projects off the mark. To keep the process on track, or even more challenging, to get the process back on track, it is critical to first clearly understand where exactly we are going and how we will know when we have arrived. 

Step One: Define How You Will Measure Success

We will never agree that we have arrived until we first agree on the destination. From the very beginning of every project, we measure success in terms of how real users will interact with a digital product. We identify critical user interactions that support underlying business goals, and agree that success is a factor of how willingly—and successfully—users perform each identified interaction. Navigation, layout, content: everything is measured against this standard. We agree to that first, before work starts. Clearly defining how we will measure success provides an objective road map for the process and a framework for making effective decisions. For each audience segment, we document intended interactions as high-level user stories.

Step Two: Talk to Real Users

If success is measured in terms of how real users interact with a product, we need to be talking with real users. We work with client teams at the very beginning of projects to enlist testers. Most organizations already have relationships with their customers, readers, partners or other constituents that can be leveraged to the task. Twitter, Facebook and calls to action on public facing websites are perfect channels for promoting web surveys, a simple and effective tool both for soliciting early feedback and for enlisting the help of testers. 

Step Three: Test Everything

With goals clearly defined and a test group established, we have everything we need to test assumptions throughout the process. Is a particular navigation label clear enough? Test it. Is the design approach strongly promoting the most valued user interaction? Test it. Is the message clear? You guessed it… test that too. We use online tools like Treejack and Chalkmark, and real life tools like hallway usability testing, to test our assumptions throughout the process. 

Step Four: Help Guide Feedback

Just like every other designer I have ever met, our designers at Aten hear their fair share of feedback. We’ve written about it before—both about giving it and receiving it. Feedback plays a gigantic role in pushing projects forward to their eventual destination. With that it mind, it is critical to frame feedback in ways that move the process closer to success, not further away. In practical terms, this means feedback should be measured and tested just like everything else. We strongly encourage project stakeholders to measure feedback against stated goals and to test it with real users—whether it be suggestions about information architecture, specific navigation labels, the use of whitespace or anything else.

In Conclusion

User-centered design in an agency environment is not easy. Unlike product companies, client services companies often do not have the luxury of a true "minimum viable product" release with agile iterations. User-centered design is as much about what happens for launching version 1.0 as it is for future improvements. The first release is certainly where we have our strongest opportunity for demonstrating value. Add that to the typical dynamics of any group-led project, and building meaningful digital experiences that truly hit the mark can be very challenging. Agreeing first to how success will be measured, assembling a team of testers, testing everything and shaping feedback in terms of agreed-upon goals are a few simple steps that help keep a project soundly on track for reaching goals.


Photo couresty jinterwas on Flickr 

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