In my mind, usability is synonymous with user-centered design (UCD) or User Experience Design. UCD is an approach to design that grounds the process in information about the people who will use the product. UCD processes focus on users through the planning, design and development of a product.

The process for UCD is broken up into 5 milestones:


1. Planning

It is important planning your approach and objectives to obtain the correct results. The plan should consist of the following:

Define Your Approach

The first step is to plan which methods are expected to be used at different stages of development. This will depend on the business case for usability, and will take account of the budget, timescales, resources, skills and other constraints. For each potential method you should asses which method should be used, the type of results provided, the number of usability experts and users required, and the typical range of person days involved based on it’s application.

Project Scope & Features

A prerequisite for user-centered design is to define in detail the context of use of the product. Take a structured approach to gathering and documenting information about the characteristics of the intended users, tasks and environments. The specification of context of use can be used to inform design, and to specify valid and consistent evaluations.

Establish UCD Principles

UCD Principles define and communicate the essence of the UCD process. You will need to limit the number of principles to five or six so that they are easy to remember. An example of a good set of principles appears below.

  • Set business goals:
    Determining the target market, intended users, and primary competition is central to all design and user participation.
  • Understand users:
    A commitment to understand and involve the intended user is essential to the design process.
  • Design the total experience:
    Everything a user sees and touches is designed together by a multidisciplinary team.
  • Evaluate designs:
    User feedback is gathered early and often, and this feedback drives product design.
  • Assess competitiveness:
    Superior design requires ongoing awareness of the competition and its customers.
  • Manage by continual user observation:
    User feedback is integral to product plans, priorities, and decision-making.

2. Research

The research phase is a discovery process – analyzing and assessing all the information pertaining to users, your content and your navigation. The outcome of this phase will impact dramatically on the design.

User Analysis

You’ll need to establish who the users are, what their skills & physical characteristics are and start identifying with them. To achieve this, you will look at:

User Categories List

Start defining a broad user spectrum. For example, in the context of your system we look at age, gender, experience, etc.

User Categories Matrix

Try to establish the user’s knowledge, experience, and skill in the online world. Look at any further environmental factors such as  online connectivity, environmental (hardware, software) and the frequency of use.

Profiles (details, facts, figures) & Personas

Defining user profiles is grouping of user’s of similar characteristics – grouping users with similar age, race and occupation (if relevant) for example. Personas are fictitious individuals made from user profiles.

Personas are used by referring to them as real users when making UX decisions. Thus forcing you to be aware of the impact the decisions will have on the user’s experience.

Task Analysis

Each user has a goal to accomplish. These goals may have a series tasks leading up to the purpose or the goal the user is supposed to accomplish.

Information architecture

Defining your site’s Information Architecture (or IA) is a discipline that involves thinking about the information and services your users may need from an application, and how you should structure it to provide it for them. You’ll look at the entire body of information that needs to go on the site and think about how to break that down into chunks, and how those chunks should relate to one another.

The final result could be items like site maps, site-flow diagrams, and wireframes to convey how the site will function from a practical perspective.

3. Design

Interaction design & user interface design are processes that ensure your digital products and touchpoints are optimised around natural human behaviours, both structurally and aesthetically.

Whether you’re creating or reworking a website, web-based, mobile or desktop application, or anything in-between, look at delivering the following as part of the design process:

Mental Models, Metaphors, Design Concepts

Create these mental model descriptions during user analysis to document users’ current understanding. Then, during a design phase, create the target model to show the mental model users adopt.

Navigation Design

Core to the interface, the user’s ability to access the information on your application should enjoy a significant portion of our efforts. The navigation is informed by both the task analysis and information architecture from planning.

Storyboards & Wireframes

Sketching out the proposed low-fidelity interfaces will structure a visual representation of the stories for the user experience. The design is focused around functionality rather than aesthetics. These wireframes will be used as part of small rounds of testing. These tests will confirm the correct use of the IA, navigation, mental models and basic layout.

Detailed Design

Once you have confirmed certain basics from our storyboards and wireframes, you should focus on the aesthetics of the interface. Delivering more detailed information related to the user experience.

Functional Online Prototypes

All of the above will finally be functional prototypes published to an environment where we can test with actual users. The functional interfaces are representative of the final solution and user flow.

4. Adapt

Knowing how to adapt to your environment will only be possible when you know what’s working well and what’s not. To this point, we have done everything possible to create a suitable interface for each of the possible users. We made sure we know who they are, when they use the application, their understanding of the information present and any impediments they may have. During the phase to adapt to the feedback, the information iterates back to Design.

Now we need to prove we have done our work sufficient enough by testing the interfaces with individuals meeting the user criteria. We do this by conducting all or some of the following tests:

Design Walkthroughs

The cognitive walkthrough is a usability evaluation method in which one or more evaluators work through a series of tasks and ask a set of questions from the perspective of the user.

The focus of the cognitive walkthrough is on understanding the system’s learnability for new or infrequent users. The cognitive walkthrough was originally designed as a tool to evaluate walk-up-and-use systems like postal kiosks, automated teller machines (ATMs), and interactive exhibits in museums where users would have little or no training. However, the cognitive walkthrough has been employed successfully with more complex systems like software development tools to understand the first experience of new users.

Heuristic Evaluation

Heuristic evaluation is done as a systematic inspection of a user interface design for usability.

The goal of heuristic evaluation is to find the usability problems in the design so that they can be attended to as part of an iterative design process. Heuristic evaluation involves having a small set of evaluators examine the interface and judge its compliance with recognized usability principles (the “heuristics”).

Guidelines Reviews

Certain usability best practices could be used to evaluate the execution of the interface design. The feedback is traditionally from an independent party who are unbiased to the project. The work should be informed not only by the research, but also by standards.

5. Measure

To assess whether the impact of your design has improved your user’s experience, measure the key performance indicators set during the planning phase. These stats should be easily accessible and monitored to ensure the success of the project.

If you would like to chat a little more about how you could use this process as part of your development process, please get in touch with us.