User-centred design

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User-centred design | Usability assessment | Design guide for multimedia | INUSE project | Download information pack

User-centred design

User-centred design methods can help you produce systems which are easy to use and match the real needs of your users.

How is user-centred design achieved?

The full benefits of user-centred design can be achieved by increasing the maturity of the systems development process until it reaches level 5 on the following scale:

  1. Usability is considered irrelevant: user interfaces are designed without expertise
  2. Usability is thought to be common-sense: a GUI is layered on afterwards
  3. Usability is carried out but is unfocused: the user interface is only tested for usability when too late to make many changes.
  4. Usability is integrated into development: human factors principles are applied to user interface design.
  5. Usability is integrated throughout the lifecycle: user-centred design methods are used to match the product to user needs.

Why should my company adopt a user-centred design process?

Making systems more usable has substantial economic and social benefits. Difficult to use systems are more stressful for the user. The European Display Screens Directive puts a legal obligation on employers to provide software which is easy to use and suitable for the task.

More usable systems meet user and organisational needs better and:

In order to decide whether to adopt a user-centred approach, it is necessary to assess the benefits and the costs. User-centred design can provide benefits in four areas:

What are the cost-benefits of introducing user-centred design?

The complete benefits of user-centred design come from calculating the total life-cycle costs of the product including conception, development, implementation, support, use and maintenance. To justify the costs of user-centred design at a particular stage of development, requires explicit identification and specification of the usability requirements prior to development, so that the costs of user-centred design activities can be balanced against the penalties for failing to meet usability objectives.

What are the principles of user-centred design?

User-centred design processes are characterised by:

At each stage of design, user-centred activities are essential in order to understand and specify the business, user and organisational needs, so that potential design solutions can be evaluated against these needs. There are four essential types of activity:

When should usability activities begin?

If usability evaluation is left until just before release, there will be no chance to make any significant changes in design to correct deficiencies. In order to achieve a usable product, it is important to begin the cycle of understanding, specifying and evaluating usability by using simple mock-ups at the earliest stages of design.




Understand context



Specify usability



Build solution



Evaluation by users



The table shows typical stages in the lifecycle when particular user-centred activities are performed. For most cost-effective design feedback, repeated evaluation with 3-5 users is recommended rather than less frequent evaluation with more users. However, to be confident that usability objectives have been achieved, a final evaluation with 10 or more users will be required.

User-centred design involves:

Preparing for user-centred design

UCD activities during feasibility

Evaluation of realistic prototypes

Release and beyond

Where can I find out more about the methods involved?

Please note: the links to the Usability Support Centres were originally published in January 2000 and have not been updated since.

Usability Support Centres

Usability assessment

What is usability assessment?

Usability assessment is a way of using methods and measures to ensure that your product remains focused on the needs of the users from the start of the design cycle to the end.

Why is usability assessment necessary?

In today's marketplace products must accurately and efficiently reflect the requirements of their users in order to remain competitive. Usability assessment methods provide the means to accomplish this.

What would my company gain from conducting usability assessment?

Usability assessment provides a cost effective way of ensuring that products meet users requirements in terms of ease of use and ability to carry out a task. The return on the initial investment can be considerable, identifying potential problems early and pointing out possible solutions.

The cost of fixing a usability fault late in the cycle can be an order of magnitude greater than if it was fixed early in the cycle.

Do these methods work only if we use prototyping?

Although usability assessments work best with development methods in which early delivery of complete or semi-complete prototypes takes place, this is not the whole story. Much can also be learnt from considering previous versions, competitors' products, and proof of concept vehicles.

What methods are available?

The European Usability Support Centres offer a range of methods that can be applied throughout the lifecycle. These methods are grouped and related to design phases as shown in the table below. Further explanation of these approaches and associated methods can be found in the guidebook on Usability Assessment. Some methods generally require low resources in manpower and equipment; others may require high resource utilisation.



Resources needed


Usability Context Analysis




Design guidance




Heuristic Assessment




User Performance Assessment



measurement / diagnosis

User Subjective Assessment



measurement / diagnosis

Model Based Assessment




This looks like a lot of methods!

These approaches encompass a range of methods that are currently in use in industry. You don't have to use all of them. Different methods identify different problems. Some methods apply to different stages in the development lifecycle. For example some are better suited to the early stages of the development cycle and others towards the end of the lifecycle. The methods selected by the European Usability Support Centres have been shown to work well in industry; your starting set should be those methods which best fit to your company or project way of doing things. Representatives from the support centres can help you to select the methods that are most appropriate to your needs. As you gain experience you can start to set more ambitious goals for usability assessment and 'buy into' other methods. Experience has shown us that the most successful route to process improvement is to ensure that all assessment methods fit into the company culture from the start.

What level of expertise is needed to carry out usability assessment?

Some usability assessment methods are developed in a 'light' version that can be used quite effectively with minimal training. A human factors expert may be necessary initially to establish the usability processes and later can provide support for more complex assessment techniques.

Users are notoriously variable in their responses!

Quite right. We have two approaches to this problem: understand the user, and employ efficient and reliable methods.

What do I do next?

Contact your local European Usability Support Centre at one of the addresses at the end of the User-centred Design section above.

Design guide for multimedia

Contextual design

When you design a multimedia system you must pay attention to the entire context in which the system will be used in terms of the users and what they will do with the system, as well as technical aspects such as what platforms the system is likely to be running on. This is what is known as contextual design. It should be noted that using sophisticated technology is not sufficient in itself for achieving quality.

Surely, there are already standards for this kind of approach?

Yes, design standards are available. However the real challenge lies in how the content providers and the people who actually put the material together take care of both the aesthetics and the ergonomics of the system being developed, with due care being paid to prevailing conventions and guidelines. You won't find that sort of information in a standard or style guide.

But we already use well-known standard and style guides!

Principles of design, and design recommendations, as in the ISO 9241 standard, can be very useful for explaining the design space available to a designer. These standards do not however assist in making design decisions involving areas like:

Will this involve a lot of technical detail that I am unfamiliar with?

No, we're interested here in the main features which are essential for multimedia products: easy to understand design principles and design conventions. Our focus is on design requirements and design features of the end products of multimedia development efforts.

A lot of people mean different things by the term 'multimedia'

Yes, indeed there are a lot of definitions around. What underlies most of them is the concept of a special purpose consumer product which presents and accepts domain-specific information by means of simple and familiar interactions with the user. Sound, moving images, hyperlinks: all these are included in this conception of multimedia as a type of electronic book.

What kind of multimedia interfaces are you covering?

Not only the up-to-date Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) involving graphics, images and animation! The guidebook also includes advice on how to design for multimedia with Character-based User Interfaces (CUIs), as well as interfaces that use speech recognition, and output by means of reproduced or synthesised speech.

A good multimedia interface will give the end user a lot of freedom to customise the interface, won't it?

This is one of the challenges of multimedia. Well-designed multimedia interfaces also offer customisation options never dreamt of before. We have to consider interfaces that are customised on behalf of the user (for instance, an Internet provider), and interfaces which the users can customise for themselves directly. This also includes interfaces customisable for people with special needs. The aim of customisation is to create an interface that allows the user to make good, informed choices that will assist the user's work. This area is at the forefront of contextual multimedia design.

What are the key issues in multi-media design?

What kinds of applications lend themselves to contextual design?

Typical application categories and example systems might include:

This all sounds very good, but I'm afraid I'm going to have problems putting it into practice

Well, each design activity is in itself a voyage of discovery, from which you and your organisation will learn a lot for future multimedia design activities. However, we realise that design support must be given in terms of examples or scenarios for actual use in order to be meaningful. It's up to you to abstract the design principles from your experience and to put them into your own organisation's design guide which can then be used for future systems.

You mean, you don't mind us taking this stuff and putting it into our in-house design guides?

We don't mind! We positively encourage it, as a way of your organisation getting the feeling that they 'own' the approach we advocate.

What should I do next?

You may obtain the Design Guide for Multimedia from your nearest Usability Support Centre at one of the addresses at the end of the User-centred Design section above.

The INUSE project: providing Usability Support

INUSE ('Information Engineering Usability Support Centres') was a European Commission supported project. The major objective of INUSE was to set up a network of Usability Support Centres across Europe to assist both companies and projects within the EC Telematics Applications Programme.

INUSE Information Pack

To provide information on usability, INUSE developed a series of Technical Guides. Whilst these were published in 1996, readers of El.pub may still find then useful. They are available for download as PC-zipped Word documents.

User Centred Design - an overview of the most cost effective methods for incorporating user requirements and usability into product and system design. Word 6 file PC zipped 100K

Usability Assessment - management guide to specifying, designing and measuring usability, obtaining feedback on the design, and using ergonomic standards. Word 6 file PC zipped 97K

Design Guide for Multimedia - introductory design guide with state-of-the-art guidelines for designing effective and appealing user interfaces for multimedia applications. Word 6 file PC zipped 116K

Organisations offering usability services - catalogue of organisations providing usability services across Europe (including the European Usability Support Centres). Word 6 file PC zipped 129K

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Last up-dated: 16 February 2024

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