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Getting started

What is User Centred Design?

User Centred Design is an approach that supports the entire development process with user-centred activities, in order to create applications which are easy to use and are of added value to the intended users.

When's the best time to start?

Right now!

The best time to begin is when you are planning a development project, so you can make a reasonable allocation of ; resources to the User Centred Design process.

If you are already into development, then start your usability planning today. Remember the first law of User Centred Design:

Test with real users early in the project
and frequently thereafter.

What should happen first?

Consider your end users' needs and create a plan for usability activities. Such a plan should describe:

  1. the objectives, requirements, and constraints of the development project.
  2. the user groups, what they will do with the application you are developing, and the anticipated environments in which they will use it (context of use).
  3. the user testing scenario, how and when you propose to do this.
  4. the critical success factors and the quality factors for the application project from the point of view of the developers and the users (usability requirements).
  5. guidelines and resources you should use to guide development, especially the most appropriate testing methods for each phase of the project.

A good way to collect this information is at a stakeholder meeting.

The plan may need to be modified in the light of experience during the project: it is not a problem to change it, so long as you know what you are changing and why you are changing it. Otherwise, you will follow a process of 'random mutation'.

Is user-centred design always iterative?

No, not necessarily. But don't forget that the process of user centred design, although in principle applicable to a one-off 'waterfall' type of development, is at its best in an iterative development environment.  The ISO 13407 standard explains how this can be structured.

Iteration can take place 'in the small', that is, within each stage of a larger development plan; or it can take place 'in the large', that is, the whole development cycle can be iterated several times. As you gain experience in iterative development, you will realise that the concept of 'right first time' is simply a dangerous myth.

Well, that's a start! What next?

You are going to have to develop some kind of standards for the way your interface is going to look and feel, so that it presents a consistent picture to the user and doesn't commit some of the more elementary mistakes. Take a look at existing guidelines.

Raise awareness about usability in the rest of the development team by engaging them in usability topics. Bring your manager into the discussions.

But what about the functionality?

Start by using disposable prototypes to try out some ideas with people from your user group. Paper prototyping is an excellent way to involve end users in the early stages of design. As your ideas firm up with the help of your user groups, you'll be starting to create more advanced prototypes which may contain portions of code that you can use for the final release.

What are the best methods for user centred design?

Possible methods are shown in the Methods Table. The choice of methods depends primarily on your critical success and quality factors. However the maturity level of your project or organisation with regards to User Centred Design will certainly influence the process of method selection.

In general, if you are working in an organisation low in the maturity scale, then go for simple methods that will make your point quickly, and let you demonstrate the value of the approach as well as helping the project along.

If you are working in an organisation further up the maturity scale, you'll find that the development team will expect factual, objective information from you about the effects of design decisions. You can now afford to use methods that will give you detailed information but which may consume more resources.

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