Principles of User-Centered Design

This chapter includes information about:

  • What “design” means across disciplines
  • Concepts of multimedia design
  • The meaning of a user-centered design process

Design is all around us. The chair you’re sitting in, the buildings you walk through each day, the device you’re using to read this chapter, the typeface used to present these words — all were designed by somebody with an intended use in mind.

All designed as devices for sitting close to other people — but otherwise designed with very different users and goals in mind.
All designed as devices for sitting close to other people — but otherwise designed with very different users and goals in mind.

Imagine an architect designing a building, a web developer designing an app for your smartphone and a fashion designer creating a new line of athletic wear. They are using different skills with different goals in mind, but all three are thinking about similar questions:

  • Who are the intended users?
  • What are their needs?
  • What assumptions do they have about this?
  • How will this be appealing to them?

In digital multimedia, telling stories effectively is a similar design challenge. Whether you’re creating content for print or for the Web, with words or with images, the basic concepts of multimedia design are the same:

  • Design is intentional. All elements have a purpose.
  • Design communicates ideas to your intended audience or users.
  • Design involves constructing a solution to a problem (including communication problems).

Design is intentional. All elements have a purpose.

Design involves thoughtful planning and combinations. Although it is difficult to define “good” design across all disciplines, a successful designer can explain each element of a design and why it contributes to the overall function and harmony of the object or content. Extraneous elements that don’t contribute to the purpose of the design make it less effective by distracting from the meaningful elements.

Design communicates ideas to your intended audience or users.

A design that makes use of text or images can use those elements to convey a message. But other aspects of design also communicate ideas to your users. The choice of a particular color or font can change the way a message is received because of users’ expectations.

Design involves constructing a solution to a problem.

A common misconception is that design is merely decoration — an optional garnish to make things “pretty.” Design is central to how a problem is solved or a need is met. These can be communication problems, such as notifying people about an upcoming event or a change in policy, or teaching people new information.

User-Centered Design

User-centered design is an approach developed within the discipline of interactive digital design. Abbreviated as UCD and also known as human-centered design, it is both a process and an overall design philosophy that involves research about users and making adjustments based on feedback. This is representative of the idea that designers are working to solve problems for people, rather than forcing people to adapt in uncomfortable ways. In the textbook Multimedia Foundations, author Vic Costello explains: “It is about creating a product or interface that meets the needs of real users rather than satisfying designers’ whims.”

A key characteristic of UCD is an iterative design approach, meaning that a product goes through a cycle of design-feedback-modification many times to improve its usability and function. Iterative design has become more a more visible in digital media, as many apps and websites are released in “beta” to the public and then updated frequently to make improvements.

Although this approach is most dominant in the design of digital products and interfaces, putting users at the forefront can applying to all digital media design. Any multimedia content that intends to communicate a message to a particular audience will be more effective if that audience is central to the design process.

Photos at the top by Flickr users Aaron Loessberg-Zahl, Rupert Ganzer, Luke Lai and FestivitiesMN.