User-Centered Design Thinking. Huh?

These days you often hear terms like ‘user-centred design’ and ‘design thinking’. But what do they mean and, above all, how can you successfully apply the methods that they represent in the development of digital products like websites and apps?
Written by Dominik Gasser – Creative Director

What is design thinking?

While user-centered design (UCD) focuses largely on user interfaces and the familiar issues of usability, design thinking is an approach for solving problems that can lead to the development of (entirely) new ideas. Originally developed by Stanford professors David Kelley, Larry Leifer and Terry Winograd, design thinking aims at finding solutions that are compelling in the eyes of the user. Design thinking proceeds from the assumption that the best way to solve problems is to have people from different areas and disciplines working together to collectively develop and test products.

So far so good. You can find people from different areas in just about every company. If you can put together an interdisciplinary team that includes, for example, product managers, marketing specialists, designers and coders, you’re ready to start the creative process. Success is pre-programmed, as it were. But end users are often incorporated too little or far too late in the process. It is a natural human tendency to assume that others think the way we do and to believe that certain knowledge is required for this kind of work. But who are our users? How do they tick, what are they looking for and how do they interact? Even the best interdisciplinary project team can only anticipate what the best solution will be for users. The only way to gain more certainty as well as vital input is to incorporate users into the process from the beginning. More on this later.

Start with a strategy and a vision

Before you can even begin with design thinking and developing ideas and concepts, you need to define your vision and strategy. This way, everyone involved knows where the path is leading and the concrete goals along the way. To establish a results-oriented process, it is also important to define the business goals as well as explicit criteria for success (KPIs), which may include factors like the number of products you wish to sell per month. The vision describes the essence of the product. Together with your knowledge of the target group, this is the crucial information that your team needs.

User-centered design requires research

Once the product vision is defined, it’s time for the next phase: research, in the form of market and competitor analysis and user research, which makes up the other half of your foundation for an outstanding concept. Experience has shown that the findings from this research phase are essential. Solutions are more substantiated and it is also easier to convince different interest groups in the organisation that the idea is worthwhile. There are various proven methods for carrying out market analysis and user research, such as interviews, online surveys and contextual inquiry. We won’t go any further into that here, but if you’d like to know more, stop by for a coffee some time :-). As well as market and user research, tools such as Google Analytics can also provide valuable information that you can evaluate and incorporate into your analysis.

Involving users for a successful project

So now we have our strategy and vision and, with our research in hand, we also have an outstanding basis from which to begin the creative process that in most cases looks something like this:

01. Ideation & mood screens
02. User journeys
03. User & job stories
04. Information architecture
— User testing
05. Wireframes
— User testing
06. Screen design
07. Clickable prototype
— Usability testing
08. Specifications
09. Coding
— Testing
11. Launch
12. Post-launch optimasition

Here, too, it is important to incorporate users into the process as much as possible and get their feedback to avoid the danger of getting to the end of a long development phase and realising that the product simply isn’t what users want – and then having to implement complicated and therefore expensive corrections.

In other words, UX research and usability testing always pay off because only satisfied users become good customers. And testing doesn’t always have to be a large-scale undertaking with empirical findings; often simply testing the product with a handful of users is enough. Studies have shown that user testing with five users can cover around 80% of issues.

User testing


User-centered design and design thinking aren't just good in theory, they are methods that bring real results when applied in practice and can contribute substantially to the success of a project. I am convinced that what seems like a lot of extra effort for research and testing pays off in the end. You can significantly reduce time-consuming and frustrating corrections and, even more importantly, the product will be better and thus more successful. Or to put it even more simply: good design is good business.

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