How prototyping and user-centred design leads to better products

Posted by Angelo D’Onofrio | 26.07.2018

User-centred design is a methodology and set of design practices which involve users at every stage of the product development process in order to gain insights and turn these into solutions which will positively affect popularity and success of your product. It is an evaluation-driven design approach which involves a team of designers, engineers and researchers working together to understand user issues, unlock insights and solve the real-world problems which matter to end users. It puts the user at the centre of the process which is why it is often referred to as user-centred design or user-centric design.

Whether they are tasked with inventing a new product, finding opportunities and new markets or improving existing products, the team will work in closely with end users to create well resolved solutions that focus on the user experience, addresses their unmet needs and align with their expectations. This is the core philosophy of user-centred design.

Why should you prototype new product ideas?

A fundamental part of the insight gathering during a user-centred design process is creating prototypes. Prototypes can range in complexity and don’t have to be exactly like the final item – perhaps they are made of cardboard, foam or 3D printed plastic whereas the end product will be metal, or perhaps it’s an interactive wireframe of a piece of software rather than a fully-functional, coded version.

Whatever form prototypes take, they must in some way mimic the final product in a way that allows the user to interact with them in a similar way. Tactile, physical objects are much easier for our brains to comprehend, more of our senses are stimulated and we can begin to use the prototype for its intended purpose making it much easier to get meaningful feedback than from a sketch or illustration. Even 3D CAD mock-ups of a product will pale in comparison to something that users can touch and hold. Users are able to interact with a physical prototype on a very fundamental level and instantly let you know how they find it to use and where breakdowns in the user experience are occurring.

This iterative user-centred design process is key to finding insights from your end users, understanding what they really want and where current products aren’t meeting their expectations. These insights guide the development of truly user-centric products which deliver great user experiences and grow brand affinity leading to long term business growth.

5 ways that prototyping and user-centred design leads to better products

1. Focus is always on the user

It’s sometimes difficult for designers to place themselves in the shoes of the product’s target market. Designers can easily find themselves falling into the trap of designing products for themselves and lose sight of who they are really designing for and the problems that they face. An on-going dialogue with the relevant audience and involving them at every stage of the decision making process is the key to user-centred design and makes it easier to develop a product experience that is likely to become a commercial success.

2. The exact needs of the user are identified

Exploration of a design brief allows the exact product requirements to be identified. Focus groups and user interviews with the target market will give first-hand, qualitative information about the needs of the user and what they require from a new product. There’s no point in developing a product if the target audience don’t see it as better than what they currently have – they won’t buy it! With user-centred design, it’s about understanding what the end users’ needs are, without making any assumptions and translating these into solutions which add value that they will pay a premium for.

The user-centred design philosophy dictates that identifying the needs and desires of users helps to create more commercially viable products than would have been designed by merely responding to the initial design brief. After all, many briefs are commercially driven – for example, the product must cost $3 per unit, complete certain functionality in a specific amount of time or be ready to ship in six months.

But, what do users actually want? Something that’s cheap? Maybe. Something that ‘just does the job’? Perhaps. But how do you compete when your business model centres around a cheap product which “does the job”, all you can do is make your product cheaper. How about a product which is intuitive, full of useful features and delivers the best user experience? That’s where the value lies and it’s that which requires delving deep to touch the hearts and minds of the people who will use your product.

Project briefs often focus on things that are quantitative and measurable, often overlooking what the user actually wants. From a commercial point of view, that makes sense as those things are easily measurable so you can easily track the ‘success’ of the finished product in relation to the original brief.

The aim of the user-centred design approach is to shift the definition of ‘success’. Understanding the difference between a successful project and a successful product because commercial objectives and user needs rarely align so readily. Recognising that “success” is not necessarily about hitting all of the requirements of a brief and that questioning the validity of the success criteria and aligning them with user expectations key. It’s not just about statistics – it’s about creating positive user experiences and that requires in-depth thought, reflection and questioning.

3. Multidisciplinary, team-based idea generation yields more diverse user-centred design solutions

Involving multiple team members at the idea generation stage means that many different ideas can be put forward – more than one person could think of alone. The energy of a team, fuelled by different perspectives and experiences, is the catalyst to creative ideas. The range of experiences of each team member brings a varied set of expertise, emotions and brief interpretations to the user-centred design process. Ideas can be explored, combined and evaluated in order to find the optimum solution to the design brief. As the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

4. Iterative user-testing of prototypes is integral to user-centred design and allows issues to be identified and solves early

When a tangible prototype is tested, potential issues with the design or functionality are identified. They can then be solved by creating a new prototype and re-testing. For example, you may find that a product doesn’t sit well in user’s hands or that they find it difficult to press buttons or activate features due to their placement on the device. Exploring the prototype with end users allows them to experience the product in context. The designers can ask if there is anything that the user would change about the product – but designers who are really tuned in can infer even more information by simply observing. By handing your prototype to an end user and watching what they do with it. Do they hold it correctly? If you ask them to complete an action without guiding them, can they work out how to do it? Do they get confused or frustrated?

Observation is a critical part of user-centred design as users often don’t know what they want and when put in the spotlight will default to generic answers such as “yes, I like it”. These answers are no use to anybody and are usually borne out of the natural human aversion to causing offense – most of the time they will just tell you what they think you want to hear. However, with careful observation, one can identify difficulties, confusion and breakdown in the user experience. It is often useful to film such interactions so that you can revisit and rewatch the experience focusing on different areas and find insights you may have missed the first time.

5. Multiple product iterations can be developed quickly

Following feedback and observations collected from user testing, fresh prototypes are developed that build on insights gathered previously. This method of user-centred design and incremental, iterative product development is far more cost-effective than leaving the testing until after a high-fidelity prototype has been created – or worse, after the product has been manufactured.

At first glance, user-centred design may not seem like the most commercial approach to developing new products and getting them to market quickly and with the least expense. At first it may seem like a long winded and counterintuitive approach. However, it is in fact the most effective commercial strategy you can adopt as it circumvents bad product experiences, poor sales, missed opportunities and costly mistakes. It allows your customers to tell you exactly what they want and unlocks the insights which allow you to create value that they will pay a premium for, strengthening your brand and growing your business.