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Human-Centered Design – An Introduction to Designing for Ease of Use

January 18th, 2013

Designing products that are easy to use is not a simple exercise. After a number of years spent designing a range of PC and industrial products, my experience is that those products which appear the simplest, cleanest and easiest to use are, more often than not, the ones that took the most amount of effort to design and complete. Constructing a product that simply exposes every possible feature at once to the user is relatively easy. What’s more difficult is prioritising the user interface, making the most frequent and essential elements readily available while pushing the more advanced, less frequently used features into the background.


One of the biggest obstacles to overcome when beginning to design anything that is easy to use is the designer’s ego. Almost all designers, whatever their field, e.g.  software, mechanical, usually hold some sort of innate belief about what the user wants and what the best solution should be. This is a natural and essential requirement for any designer. Without the self-belief and initiative to construct a solution a designer would not be able to form an innovative solution for a user need. However, in any mature development process, the ultimate design of a product should not be allowed to rely on what may turn out to be a prejudice, personal desire or pet theory of the loudest or most assertive engineer (or manager) on the team.

One process that can be adopted in any development program is Human-Centred or User-Centred Design. For a process that has sounds rather complicated, it’s actually based on some very simple and low-tech ideas. To describe HCD, let’s break the development process into 3 distinct stages:-

1. Understand the user’s requirements for the product.

In particular try to gain an understanding of the user’s pain point or difficulties.

2. Innovate and design a solution for the user’s product requirements.

3. Test and evaluate the solution with users.

Take the lessons learned and go back to stage 1.

Repeat steps 1, 2 and 3 as required. Any development is a compromise and engineering judgement needs to be used to decide when the improvements are no longer worth the effort of repeating the cycle. HCD techniques come into play mainly in stages 2 and 3 giving the solution developers a set of techniques for presenting and evaluating solutions with users as well as techniques for prioritising evaluation results.

I opened this post by saying that designing for ease of use is not a simple exercise. Although there are only 3 steps listed above they all involve a lot of work, usually over a significant period of time. Adopting HCD techniques can help you increase the chances of a successful development. I’ll elaborate on the HCD techniques in a follow-up post.

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