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User-Centered Design: Principles, Process, Examples

Reading time: 14 minutes
UX Design

In 1993, an Apple employee, Donald Norman, was the first to integrate the phrase "user experience" into his personally selected job title. He wanted to ensure that systems met all user experience aspects.

Since then, many companies have begun adapting their design processes to include user-centered design principles (UCD). UCD is a better way for businesses to serve their users by appealing to their needs and desires. The process includes extremely flexible tenets that make it easy for any industry to use UCD when developing a killer product.

This article discusses a complete overview of UCD and some noteworthy examples that can inspire how you apply user-centered design within your company.

Curious about having a team of designers and developers implement user-centered design within your website? You can learn more about our agency here and our web design services here.

What is User-Centered Design?

User-centered design is often thought of as part of user experience (UX) design; however, it’s actually its own strategy. The UCD process goes beyond designing for users by designing with them. Another term for UCD is human-centered design.

As a whole, user-centered design is an iterative process that focuses on increasing the user experience of a product. During each phase of the project, the UX designers aim to meet the needs of users and make the accessibility of the product as simple as possible.

In some cases, UX design is paired with Agile software to create Agile UX. Agile helps to improve the development of the product with team collaboration and user feedback.

To ensure that the product will create the ultimate user experience, designers involve users throughout the entire designing process. This includes taking into account the user’s objectives, requirements, and feedback on the product.

Ultimately, user-centered design creates a product that demonstrates value to the user. For optimal value, designers tweak the product to meet the continuously changing needs of the user. As a result, end-users can use the product over the course of their lifetime.

The goal of this design process is to make sure that end-users do not have to change their behaviors or expectations to fit the product. The product, therefore, becomes a reliable tool in the user’s life since it creates an ideal user experience.

Principles of User-Centered Design

The primary principles involved in UCD aim to ensure that usability is the main focus throughout the entire development process. These principles, if implemented correctly, will make sure that user experience is met not only upon initial release of a product but for the duration of its use.

To add, each of the principles below can be customized to meet each product’s unique requirements and interaction needs.

Create Designs Unique to User Needs

When starting the design process, the design team needs to consider the specific characteristics of their targeted population as well as common real-world tasks. Additionally, the product should fit the environment where the product will be used the most.

Formulating a product that requires a great amount of effort, on part of the user, diminishes its usability and functionality, and ultimately defeats the purpose of UCD.

Keeping It Consistent

A major component of maintaining an optimal user experience is keeping the product consistent. Consistency determines how users will approach a product and influences the length of time it takes to learn how to use it.

The consistent mentality behind the UCD process should maintain constant from the beginning of the project to the end. In the event that the interface design needs updating, it is important to keep consistency among new features so that it remains valuable to the user.

Use Plain Language

When developing a product, designers aim to convey the most readable dialogue to the user. This includes defining terminology, avoiding jargon and only displaying relevant information to the specific task.

Presenting users with irrelevant information throughout the entire use of the product ultimately tarnishes its usability. Additionally, keeping the language simple allows the user to complete the task without becoming overwhelmed and confused.

Reduce User Effort

Effective product design allows users to focus on the task at hand rather than the tool itself. Investing too much effort into the product makes them less efficient and more likely for errors to occur.

Instructions for the product should be readily available for the user to refer back to. This principle allows users to complete tasks without confusion and reduces the need for any unnecessary effort.

Provide Feedback

Users rely on a response following all of their actions. This may include changing the screen’s appearance following the completion of an action.

In the event that the task is not achieved right away, the product should display a loading screen to signal to the user that the task is in progress. Keeping the user up-to-date during the entire process reassures them and helps them stay on track with their work.

Simplify Navigation

Navigation tools such as page numbers, scrolling bars, and history of visited pages greatly influence a user’s decision on a product. In general, the easier it is for them to navigate the product, the more satisfied they are with it.

For this reason, designers always form a product with clear routes for users to take. The user should be able to navigate to their intended task even if they become sidetracked along the way.

Some examples that can help users redirect themselves include cancellation buttons or clear all options.

Give the User All the Power

In the majority of cases, users already know what their needs are. They should be able to utilize a product with minor effort and rely on the support of the product to do the rest.

Eliminating the work from the task gives the user the power to complete it with ease while remaining in charge of their actions.

Present Clear Information

Any information that the user receives should be necessary for the intended task. Including elements that are relevant to the product, but not a specific task, can bulk up the user’s screen and promote further confusion.

A few ways to organize relevant information include spaces or boxes. By segregating information into sections, the user can easily determine the different elements involved in the task.

Be Free of Errors

Another principle of UCD focuses on minimizing the occurrence of errors. For example, products should be able to accept inputs that are very close to the user’s intended result. If the user submits a typo very similar to the correct response, the product should allow it.

These modifications will differ depending on each product. If an error does occur, the product should always offer a solution to the problem so that it serves the user as best as possible.

The User-Centered Design Process

The user-centered design process prides itself on being a research-focused practice. There are six stages that designers go through when developing a product. These stages include:

Specify the Context of Use

Before beginning to develop a product, the designer must research the ideal user and their needs. By observing their lives, the designers are able to get a broad picture of some of the challenges these users face.

Many of these observations are done in the form of interviews. These interviews give the designer insight into what specific goals users intend to meet and how they would like to achieve them.

From here, the designers can then understand the use cases of their product and begin designing.

Indicate Business Requirements

After interviewing users, the designers have a better sense of what is most desirable to them. During this phase, designers begin to research financially feasible solutions for the user.

Once a solid design idea has been formed and tested, the designers consider the business requirements that must be upheld. Since the primary goal of most products is to produce user loyalty and increase long-term revenue, the business requirements should be addressed over time.

Before implementing the product, the designers may ask a few questions to help them modify the design. Some of the questions may include:

  • What partnerships need to be made?
  • What resources do we need to help develop this project?
  • What is our revenue stream like?
Design Solutions For Concepts and Finished Designs

This stage of the UCD process involves generating ideas, testing and refining solutions based on user requirement and input. When working through this stage, it is important to keep users involved so that the product can be continuously changed to meet their needs.

Testing out ideas on users helps designers discover which feasible ideas help the user and which do not. Since the user’s needs change over time it is important to keep testing ideas to ensure that they are still relevant solutions.

This phase will continue until the designers and users are happy with the result.

Evaluate the Design

At this point in the UCD process, designers conduct usability testing with actual users of their product. This stage gives the designers insight into how the users would actually interact with the product and understand how to tweak it to better suit them.

It is recommended that this stage is conducted as soon as possible. The faster that feedback is received from users, the faster the designers can understand their product from the user’s point of view.


The implementation phase allows designers to finally bring their solution to the market. Within this phase designers focus on a few key steps:

  • Building partnerships
  • Altering their business model
  • Piloting their idea
  • Receiving a reliable solution

The best way to do this is by researching the user and launching a prototype within their natural setting. This step will look very different depending on the type of product that is being designed.

For example, the implementation phase for a product that is designed for a younger user may involve user interviews, observing the user in their personal life and community settings.

By observing the user, the designer is able to put themselves in their shoes. Once this stage is implemented, the design is likely to change to best fit the user’s needs and meet business goals.


The final stage of designing, before releasing a product, aims to understand if the product will have the desired impact on the user. Assessing this factor will differ depending on the goal of the product.

If the product is meant to alter user behavior, factors such as user feedback will greatly help the designer understand the outcome of their work. Alternatively, the assessment may be as simple as understanding whether or not the product generated revenue.

Ultimately, the designers will compare these assessments with their business goals and alter them before deploying the product. This stage will not be considered complete until the product is as accessible as possible for the intended users.

[RELATED: Implementing these UX tips can help you to boost your site]

Benefits of User-Centered Design

According to a 2018 study, 17% of information technology (IT) start-ups fail due to a lack of implementation of user-centered design. To add, other studies have deemed UCD to be responsible for roughly 30% of business owners’ success.

With these statistics in mind is it important to note the various areas in which UCD greatly benefits the outcome of a product’s success.

Avoids Common Mistakes

Some of the most common mistakes associated with IT project failure can be avoided with the use of user-centered design. Three major reasons that projects typically fail include:

  • Having poorly defined requirements
  • Conflicting politics between stakeholders
  • Poor communication (between users and developers)

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist who specializes in user experience design, claims that UCD is directly correlated to these three reasons. User research, user testing, and interviews are all UCD elements that help solve software issues that appear in failed IT projects.

Additional reasons for failed projects include unmanaged risks and unrealistic project goals. Factors such as money pressures, poor project management, and inability to manage project complexity were also noted to be common mistakes UCD can improve.

Improves the Development Process

Many companies that have shifted to a UCD process have found that it greatly benefits their team and developmental process. One notable example is Microsoft.

They began developing their software to fit the user’s needs instead of being primarily technology-driven. During this process, the team was able to be more creative in their design.

As a result of their new approach, the team found that they were more productive, more creative, and saw more success in terms of business goals.

Enhances ROI

For every dollar spent on a project, nearly 10% is wasted due to inadequate project management. With this in mind, it is important to recognize that the use of UCD can provide a great return on investment (ROI) if properly executed.

User research allows designers to identify problems before they arise and gives them a chance to find solutions in the early stages of development. By avoiding these problems, UCD helps save time and money.

To add, enhancing user experience makes it more likely that users will enjoy a product. With less confusion around navigating the product, users will be more inclined to purchase the product, therefore, increasing sales.

Finally, users who appreciate a product’s design are more likely to turn into long-term consumers. This helps drive company ROI while satisfying the needs of the user and building a strong brand reputation.

Boosts Competitiveness

User-centered design also increases the competitiveness of companies with similar products. Users are more likely to choose a product that was designed with the user in mind compared to one that wasn’t.

Since UCD is entirely research-based, it will usually give companies who use it an advantage. This is mainly due to the fact that higher quality research makes it easier to connect with the user and appeal to their needs.

Additional benefits to UCD can include giving customers a sense of ownership of the product and manufacturing more effective and safer designs.

Notable Examples of User-Centered Design

Due to bad usability, roughly 70% of online businesses fail. In fact, 88% of people indicate that they would not return to a site following a bad user experience. For this reason, many companies have begun implementing UCD into their designing processes.

Below are a variety of examples that have demonstrated great use of the key principles of UCD.


Trello - screenshot

Products that include features without a purpose confuse the user and make it more difficult for them to navigate it. One company that is great at avoiding this issue is Trello.

Trello is a collaboration tool that helps you stay organized with its simple design. The interface only displays features and elements that benefit the user. Users can navigate the site easily due to the intuitive design Trello provides.

instacart - screenshot 0
Instacart mobile app

When using the Instacart app, the user will immediately notice that they have designed their interface with well-defined text to accommodate users who are visually impaired. To add, they have also applied UCD to the cart section of their page.

Users are able to add items to their cart directly from the main page. This feature is much faster in comparison to services that require the user to view their cart when increasing the amount of an item they already selected.


Yelp - Screenshot
Yelp mobile app

This app is designed to help users find local business reviews and make reservations. Yelp has enhanced its design by including usability features in the navigation section of its site.

While exploring the Yelp app, the user can navigate through a list of restaurants within their map feature. This allows the user to find an exact location of a business as easily as possible.

Duolingo - screenshot

This language learning app takes simplification to a new level. Its simplistic interface allows users to learn a language easily through the process of completing tasks.

Duolingo turns language learning into a game by letting users advance to new categories after completing a section. This process helps keep the user engaged while meeting their goal of learning a new language.

Spotify page on mobile

Spotify is a leading example of turning the needs and desires of users into a highly valuable product. Before their service was available, users usually purchased their music on a song-per-song basis.

For most, purchasing music in this way was not financially feasible.

Spotify created its service to address this issue and provide users with an easier way to access music. Since its development, users can now access music in one place for a standard monthly fee.

apple - screenshot
Apple's website

The design process of a website and mobile app should be focused on making information quickly accessible. There is no better example of this principle than Apple’s web pages.

Apple designs each of its web pages to provide information in a visible manner. Users can better understand factors, such as product types, features, and speculations, due to their sleek and organized display.

Accessibility should always be a top priority as it greatly impacts user experience and can change how users view your brand.


This company knows how to value the trust of its users- especially when it comes to their pets. Rover allows users to book a sitter and review online photo updates during their absence.

rover - screenshot
Rover website

This added detail helps them appeal to their users by showing them that they understand how hard it is to leave your pet with someone else. Through this UCD, users are more inclined to view Rover as a trusting site and one they would like to invest in.

mailchimp - screenshot
Mailchimp desktop site


Personalization adds depth to technology by humanizing it. A web application that effectively represents this mentality is MailChimp.

MailChimp uses personalization to appeal to its users through its beloved mascot. The chimp mascot, known as Frederick von Chimpenheimer IV, provides a hint of humor and adds an emotional connection to its service.

By appealing to users’ emotions, products can become more than just a utility.

Recognizing the Value of User-Centered Design

After analyzing the entirety of user-centered design it is clear that it is an enormously beneficial process to apply to the development of products. Going forward, there is no doubt that UCD will continue to dominate in the world of technological design.

The integration of UCD helps companies thrive amongst their user base by providing highly valuable products. With proper guidance and execution, the UCD process has the potential to become the most widely used method of product design across multiple industries.

When it comes to product design, we pride ourselves on providing trusted services in all things digital. Whether you require help developing creative strategies or tips on improving your UCD tactics, we can help you begin the process.

Regardless of the type of project, our experts are well-equipped to answer any questions you may have. Learn more about our agency, our user experience design process, and web development services.

About Seth Viebrock

In no particular order, Seth has built websites for famous artists like Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey, led a team as CTO at a social network startup company, co-presented at Stanford and the International Society for Neuronal Regulation Conference on an EEG study in consciousness, traveled to Tokyo for data center network security assessments, worked on world-class e-commerce software as a software engineer, and provided Drupal expertise for Estee Lauder and their many international brands. Seth grew up with the web, starting his first web design company at the age of 16, and this company in...
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