When do you involve users in a user-centered design process?

by Clementine Jinhee Declercq - 13 May 2016

One of the favourite parts of my job is that I get to discuss and share insights with relevant professionals of how to best apply user-centered design practice in organisations. When we talk about user-centered design, we often say it is about placing users at the centre of a product. What does that really mean? How do you understand it and apply in your daily product design process?

The model below illustrates how I see user-centered design. Those who have been in the field of UX for a while would be familiar with similar models.


The highlight of this model is that it includes two parallel processes: User research and product design. Product design is broken down into 3 major phases: Strategy, concept, and design. User research exists as a parallel process to product design.

Users are considered here in 3 key phases (each can be repeated, if necessary):

  • Strategy for defining user needs
  • Concept for prioritising features with users
  • Design for validating user usability


The goal of user research here is to understand what problems your product is trying to solve (which user requirements is it trying to fulfil?), for whom (who are you targeting?), when (in which user contexts is it to be used?) and why (why does it have to be your product?). Involving users at this stage is important as you will be able to assess if your product has an audience. If your product idea doesn’t have an audience, it is very unlikely to succeed.

As an example of a product which involved users in an early strategic stage of development is Zalando. We tested our first online shop model by only selling flip flops. This was to assess if there was a need in the market for online shopping fashion items. They set up a small server to test in real-time if there was incoming traffic to the online shop – and this was over 7 years ago. The result? It has now become one of the biggest European online fashion platforms.



This phase is about translating your high level product idea into a concrete digital interface concept, which will include a set of features. When doing so, it is important to prioritise and validate these features with users. This way, you are able to identify which of them should be further emphasised in your design and which of them can safely be removed. This is because you want to design an experience for your users through your digital product. Not just a user interface, nor a feature.


I like to take the e-reading app Blloon as an example of a digital product which focuses thoroughly on “reading” by prioritising a set of features contributing to this experience. When using the application, it almost feels like the user interface is erased in favor of an experience around reading “anytime, anywhere”, exploring readlists, discovering genres, and the latest bestsellers.



Once features are translated into concrete interface concepts, you will start polishing the design, including visual elements and the consideration of certain interaction patterns. You will be able to get specific with your design. At this stage, it is important to involve users for assessing the usability of your product, because you want to minimise any sort of usability risks, but you also want to make sure that it positively influences your business goals before the launch (and, naturally, afterwards).

As an example, the Obama Campaign Team in 2012 managed to significantly increase donation conversions through their website with the help of A/B tests. How did they do it? By making the donation form simpler. More specifically, by turning the long donation form into “4 smaller steps”, they increased the conversion rate by more than 5%.


According to the team, “Turns out you can get more users to the top of the mountain if you show them a gradual incline instead of a steep slope.”

In conclusion, the above process is only one framework for ways of considering users in digital product design. Depending on the scope of the project, the framework you would want to refer to could vary. Additionally, involving users doesn’t necessarily imply a long, heavy process with multiple testing rounds. If the right methodologies are applied, you will be able to gather valuable user insights for a successful digital product.

What’s your definition of a UCD and how do you consider users in your product development process? What have been the pros and cons of each process? Let me know via Twitter.

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