Tips and tricks about User-Centered Design

Zelda Rhiando explaines how to create richer user experiences

How to develop better digital products with User-Centered Design? How can it help publishers making better digital products? How to find what customers want?

Zelda Rhiando, user-centred product designer and digital strategist, explains some tips and tricks.

 First of all, what is User-Centred Design? How can it create richer user experiences?

User-centred design starts (unsurprisingly) with the user. First it seeks to understand the target customer through profiling and mapping the user’s wants and needs; and not just in the immediate term, but their ongoing relationship with the product over time. At each stage of the product development, from initial concept development, through to prototyping, implementation and launch, the product will be tested with the target audience, and their feedback on usability, content and price point translated back into the process to make the product better.

A key part of UCD is mapping and communicating how the product will work. Specifications tend to be visual and wireframe based, rather than in the form of long text-heavy documents, and focus on how the user interacts with the product. UCD is a highly iterative process, so documentation has to be fast and easy to produce, and clear enough that multiple teams can work from it (often simultaneously). With a strong focus on constant prototyping and testing (rather than ‘big design up front’ approach of traditional publishing), UCD is well suited to creating products that users have long-term engagement with.

How can User-Centred Design help publishers make better digital products?

Publishing is changing, and people who work in publishing can often feel bewildered by the jargon of digital, and unsure whether they’ll get a return on investment for an unfamiliar product. They often have to learn to work with software companies, or develop digital publishing teams within their own organisations – and in both of these scenarios it’s key that they know the difference between good and bad digital production, and how to handle issues that might arise.

User-centred design (UCD) provides many useful tools for developing and managing these kinds of products. It also helps to create a bridge between traditional and digital publishing. Publishers know their audience, their markets and what they want to communicate: it’s a question of giving them the skills to do that in multiple formats. It’s about a holistic approach that allows them to create lots of parallel publishing streams, and content that works for the audience no matter what format it’s delivered in

And of course, once the product has got to market, how do you then maintain it? What does the lifecycle of a digital product look like, compared to that of a print product? Again, UCD can help with this – as the detailed understanding of how customers interact with the product, and how their own lives are structured can help publishers to create compelling digital content, within an affordable and sustainable framework.

How to fit it in the development schedule?

One frequent attribute of UCD projects is parallel development of many different work streams. For example, content mark-up is likely to be happening at the same time as interface design and planning the technical and development framework for the project. Most publishers tend to work within the traditional ‘waterfall’ approach to project management, where tasks are carried out sequentially and projects have a long life. So one of the things we’ll be focussing on is ‘agile’ development, and how that can work with traditional publishing work streams.

Digital development tends to focus on an iterative, responsive approach to creating software, within short production cycles, which can be a shock to publishers more used to working on an annual cycle with long lead times. User centred design methodologies can help to bridge the gap by offering tools that help publishers to be more agile in their approach.

How to deal with different types of users? And with negative feedback?

All products have a range of potential users and customers – and those users can come from some surprising places. One of the first things that UCD practitioners focus on when starting to think about a new project is user profiling – really getting to know the kind of people who are likely to use the project, and what motivates them. By understanding their wants and needs you can design a product to work well for them from the ground up – and validate that design by testing and testing and testing some more throughout the development process.

Testing starts with the earliest concept development, via paper and digital prototyping of the product. There will always be some users that don’t get on with a product – but by taking a consistent, structured and objective approach to testing from an early stage, you should soon be able to differentiate core issues with the product from are ‘edge cases’. Testing and prototyping can help you to communicate better with internal stakeholders and developers as well – for example showing developers videos of users interacting with their product can often help them to understand how to make it work better for users better than a simple usability report.


Zelda Rhiando held a Editech workshop, ‘Developing Digital Products with User-Centered Design’, in Milan on September 24th 2013 .

An alternate version of this interview originally appeared in the Giornale della Libreria, October 2013.

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