In Episode 10 of Screen Space: User-Centered Design 101 (Why user-friendly is not enough)

Welcome to Screen Space your podcast about creating usable, accessible, effective, and efficient web, blog, and new media design for the everyday (and non-expert) designer. This is Episode 10 of Screen Space: User-Centered Design 101 (Why user-friendly is not enough). The episode is an introduction to User-Centered Design. I provide definitions and explanations for system-centered design, user-friendly design, and user-centered design, and argue why you want the later for good web, blog, and new media design.

I am your host, Dr. Jennifer L. Bowie, a professor at Georgia State University. I teach and conduct research in areas related to new media, web, and blog design.

We have all had problems with technology—links that did not take us where we wanted to go, buttons that did something different than we expected, confusing instructions, odd error messages, and we have probably lost data, time, and even our patience with such things. Many of us have probably wasted far too much time trying to get a word processing program to do something we want or to find information on a website that we know is there. As the designers of effective, efficient, accessible, and usable websites, blogs, and new media, we probably don’t want our users or audience to have these problems with our media.

Luckily we can turn to the areas of technical communication, human-computer interaction, psychology, information architecture, human factors and other usability and user experience areas for methods and techniques they have developed to create usable sites, blogs, and media and to understand why problems occur in the first place. As you will learn today, problems your users face rarely have to do with your users being incompetent, and more with problems with the design. There are three general models of design which follow three very different methodologies.

The first is system-centered design. I tend to call this the “look ma, no hands” model of design. In this model the programmers, developers, or “designers” of the technology decide what the technology needs or doesn’t need. The designers are most concerned with functional specifications and do not take in to account who will be using the system—the users. Frequently the designers design based on what they think is “cool”, what is easiest to do, and what they enjoy coding/creating. This is great when the designers are creating products for people like them with the same tasks, knowledge, skills, and behaviors, but this is rarely the case now. The resulting system-centered design is often something the designers can use and figure out, but the users cannot. To use the system the users often have to spend a great deal of time learning the system.

Since users who are different from the designers often have problems and issues with system-centered designs, the designers may even consider the users “stupid,” “dumb,” or “incompetent.” The designers might even feel that if people cannot figure it out, they should not use it.

This design model can lead to a lot of funky (according to the designers) bells and whistles—and bells and whistles the users many not want, need, or find at all useful. The real needs, tasks, skills, knowledge, and behaviors of the “users” are not considered in the design, and as a result the technology or media may very well fit what the designer wants it to do, but not at all what the user wants or needs it to do. The end result of system-centered design: technology or media that is not efficient, effective, accessible, and usable and often baffles users.

Why “look ma, no hands”? In this saying the ma is the user and the kid on the bike is the designer. Most mothers do not want their kid to be riding their bikes with no hands—thus the kid is not considering the audience/user. The kid is just all happy with what she can now do on a bike and is showing off (extra bells and whistles). An approach that better considers the use/audience/mother would be “Look Ma, I have my helmet on correctly!”.

The next model is user-friendly design. While this model is better than system-centered design, it is still problematic. With design under this model, the designers do consider the user, but often in simple, stereotypical ways and frequently only at the end of the development cycle. I think of this as the “pink because they are women” model. With this model a web designer designing site for women may choose to use the color pink because “women like pink”. However the designer doesn’t actually ask if the women who make up the audience of the site like pink, she or he just assumes and may not even consider the user beyond this surface level. Such assumptions may work, but no always. Some women may love a pink site; others may find it silly and insulting. Still others may have a red-green color blindness that will make the pink an icky color and possibly not contrast enough with the rest of the design. User-friendly can result in designs that are easy (or easier) to use, such as the Graphic User Interface, over the old command line interface (certainly an example of system-centered design).

In many ways user-friendly design is what writing teachers teach when they say “think of your audience”. I tell this to my students often. However, how can I expect my students to really write for their audience if they do not know who their audience is? If they have not interacted with their audience? Asked their audience about the writing or design? All they have are stereotypes and ideas of their audience, and often these are not based in reality. While my students may write a stronger document when they consider their audience, the end result may not be as efficient, effective, accessible, and useable as it could be. And the same is true for any user-friendly design.

In user-friendly design the user may just be an afterthought. Granted, and afterthought is better than not at all, but the real needs, tasks, skills, knowledge, and behaviors of the users are still not deeply considered or incorporated into the design. Such a design may be friendlier, but we can do better.

Which brings us to the third model of design: user-centered design. While system-centered places the system and programmer at the center of the design, and user-friendly considers the users, user-centered design put the user at the center of the design. What better way to design for the real needs, tasks, skills, knowledge, and behaviors of the users? In this model, users actively participate in the design process from the beginning to the end, from the first designs through development, implementation, and even maintenance of the design. Sometimes the users may literally become co-designers and other times users are integrated in other ways.

Many methods and techniques can be used in user-centered design: from usability testing, contextual design, participatory design, design-based ethnography, to simple tools like surveys, interviews, and observations. Often a truly user-centered design will include a variety of these methods. Testing is regularly involved—usability testing or other types—where it is not the users that are tested, but the interface that is tested by real users to see if they can use it. The actual tasks, needs, skills, knowledge, and behaviors of the actual real users are not only considered and studied, but put at the center of the design. The bells and whistles the designer can create and the stereotypical references of the “users” are ignored in favor of real information, real needs, and real uses of real user. The end result is not only efficient, effective, accessible, and usable, but often intuitive, helpful, and easy.

In user-centered design, users no longer must shape their tasks and uses around what the system allows, but now the system is shaped around these tasks and uses. If the website is pink, it is because this is what the users found best. If the interface has a bell it is because the users found it useful. The users are not thought to be dumb or incompetent because they cannot use a system in this model, but the system is found to be problematic and changed. This empowers the user and results in technology, software, or media the users will keep coming back too. It also results in less people swearing at your design, which is always good (unless you like making your users mad, but if you do it is unlikely they will be your users for long).

A good user-centered design process can be expensive (but not always) but the end results are an improved bottom line and better yet happy, effective, and efficient users. What more could you want?

For your everyday web, blog, and new media designs user-centered design may seem like an unreachable utopia. And perhaps a true involvement of the users of your media (beyond yourself) may not be feasible or possible throughout the whole design process. However, there are many techniques you can use to integrate the user into your design process and have resulting media that is more user-centered. In my next episode, I will touch on one such method—usability testing.

So, now you know why you do not want to make a system-centered design (at least if you want anyone to come to your website, blog, or other new media). System-centered design focuses more on the system and abilities and desire of the designer, not on the user. You also know why you want to go beyond user-friendly design. Superficial and last minute considerations of the user are not enough. You know user-centered design is the way to go. The user and her real needs, tasks, skills, abilities, and desires are placed at the center of the design and the design is truly created for her. If you make your website, blog, or other new media user-centered, your audience will grow and your design will be more effective, efficient, accessible, and usable.

That’s it for the three models of design. Remember the continuum goes from problematic system-centered, to somewhat better user-friendly design, to the ideal of user-centered design. Join me next time for one way to begin working towards user-centered design—usability testing.

If you want to find out more, I’ve included some references in the transcript on the Screen Space blog on User-Centered Design. Feel free to send me questions too!

In fact, If you have questions, comments, or thoughts on what you want me to cover please send me an email at or check out the Screen Space blog— Have fun and design well!

Screen Space is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. So, feel to send a copy to that clearly system-centered website you hate to use, but don’t change the podcast, do give me and Screen Space credit, and don’t make any money off of it.

Screen Space’s opening music today is “African Dance” by Apa Ya off of Headroom Project and the closing music is “Survival” by Beth Quist off of “Shall We Dance”. Both these selections are available from Magnatune.

Resources: coming soon!

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2 Responses to “Screen Space 10: User-Centered Design 101 (Why user-friendly is not enough)”

[...] is one area I focus on with this blog and podcast. I’ve even podcast on it (see Episode 10: User-Centered Design 101 (Why user-friendly is not enough) . I am not the only one who finds usability an important topic. Nor are just those of us fighting [...]

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