Smart way to success: involve your users from early on

By Lauri Rummukainen, Design Strategy & UXMay 4, 2021 • Read time 4 min

Have you ever been part of a project, which – after investing time and money – didn’t take off? If not, you can consider yourself unique. Failure is something successful people and businesses face when reaching for the stars.

What differentiates successful failures from disastrous failures is often timespan: sooner or later. This is why being user-centric matters. Your users will not solve your problems. Yet at a minimum, they can tell you that you have a problem. At the best, their insights can plant a seed for something big.

What does it mean to be user-centric?

User-centrism is like most ideologies: it comes in all shapes and sizes and evolves over time. What is common is that all features need to be based on insights gathered from the users.

There is no one right way to be user-centric. However, being maker-centric: we’ve done this x times before, or being product-centric: it’s all about tech and/or features, are signs for user-centrism to stay away. The only requirement for user-centrism is that users are somehow incorporated in the design & development process.

As the saying goes: focus on the end-user, and everything else will follow.

What is user-centered design?

When you google user-centered design, you easily end up with an endless supply of definitions and flowcharts. In practice, user-centric design is simply putting users at the center of product design and development. You develop your digital product taking into account your user’s requirements, objectives, and feedback.

User-centered design is an iterative design process framework that incorporates validation from the user every step of the way. This helps you understand your user, what they want and don’t want, and how they’re ultimately going to interact with each part of your product.

Most companies today conduct surveys, focus groups, usability studies, and dig deeper into web analytics when developing new *things*. Sometimes becoming overwhelmed with all the data available even acts as an unconscious excuse not to take user point to view into account.

In practical terms, gathering information is a necessary starting point. But it’s just a starting point. What matters the most is the insights we formulate from the information. Even the best objective information needs a preference-and-belief-free psychological topping in order to become meaningful.

What is NOT user-centered design?

Are you a designer? A product manager? CTO? If you must only know one thing about user-centric design, this is it: it’s not about you. Your opinions, personal experiences and thoughts are next to irrelevant.

The only thing that matters is the user, and if we truly believe in the user-centric way of working and thinking, ideally we always test solutions on actual end-users. Even if this is not for whatever reason feasible, we must separate actual user feedback from our own beliefs.

So, the customer is always right? Nope. This is perhaps the single biggest and most common misconception of user-centered design. Yes, we do want to listen to what our users have to say, but it is up to the designer to come up with a solution based on what they say and what they don’t say. There is a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Users can often easily describe a problem they're having, but not the best solution.

The foundation of user-centric design is pretty straightforward: we just interact with the users. Even the most advanced methodologies rarely tell us the absolute truth. Even the best studies, analyses and insights are more often than not contextual. It depends. Sophisticated guesswork. Ok then, doesn’t this make user-centric design waste of resources? As an ad hoc act, maybe. As a way of doing things, no.

What are the risks of not designing in a user-centric way?

Perhaps the biggest risk is that your business keeps doing the once-right thing for too long. Not taking users into the core might mean that you’re blissfully unaware of your customers' pain points, thus possibly losing them to a competitor.

Once upon a time, user-centric design was labeled as "niche". Today it’s mainstream. Not because every cool kid in town is doing it but because it’s often a matter of life and death. Lack of user-centric design may result in products and services that do not satisfy customers' wants and needs. This usually means more money wasted in dead-end projects, as well as struggling sales. The fall of once-market-leader Nokia is said to be associated with arrogance and refusal to listen to its users. At the same time, Apple was investing in new technologies and the possibilities to introduce them to their users, with their users.

Why doesn’t everybody utilize user-centered design?

Guess twice: is it money… or money. Researching and involving users costs. Add this to the fact that more often than not the benefits of user-centered design are not visible until very late in the process. Some benefits of user-centered design may even remain invisible forever: gradual improvements in quality and usability of products and services other than what was included in the project.

There are still many businesses that do not believe in the value of user-centered design. However, I strongly believe such businesses will go extinct not later but sooner. Committing to user-centric ideology and practices is an investment in future-proofing your business.


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