How User-Centered Design Makes Everyone Happier


I love design.

I love being able to work with smart people to diagnose and solve problems with a dose of creativity. I love the interplay between all the core principles of design. I love constantly needing to learn new things, and put them in to practice. But let’s be honest: design isn’t perfect. Like any industry, along with design come common frustrations – often, frustrations big enough to drive many of us out of our industry.

Think of all the issues that exasperate us as designers – the things we get together and bitch about over a pint. How many of us have had clients start playing art director? Delivered something that wasn’t good enough, a product we didn’t want our name on? Built something that has sat there unused? Or had a relationship go sour because of how a project turned out?

We’ve been there. It’s awful. It makes us unhappy and personal satisfaction tanks, it makes talented people leave the field, and it rightfully makes others skeptical of our industry.

But what if we could put into practice a belief – something more than just a set of tasks – that would cut these issues off at the root? What if we could prevent clients from playing art director; deliver products we’re proud of and that people love to use; maintain great relationships and grow business; and most importantly, be and make people happy?

In our experience – as an agency that designs and builds custom websites and applications – we can avoid these problems, and in turn be happier while making others happier. How? By buying into user-centered design.

We’ll get into a lot in this article – what exactly UCD is and the principles behind it, how exactly it can solve the aforementioned problems, how to apply UCD in practice as a designer, and other companies of note who are following user-centered design with positive outcomes. But first, a story.

The Expert Homebuilder

I’m going to build a house for you, the user. But let’s not forget – I’m the expert here. I know the answers. I’ve built lots of houses, and you haven’t even built a single one. I know you need a house with a roof and a place to cook food and a place to sleep. Trust me – I know my shit. So, we chat budget and the basic details, and I go off and build you this cute little place:

house with vw bug in front

Pretty cool, right? It’s got a cute little white picket fence, and a nice little stoop. Carpet is warm and inviting, so there’s lush carpet throughout. Plus there’s a bunch of space in the kitchen for all your dinnerware and for hosting friends too.

Voila! The house I, the expert, made for you. Then, after the house is built and you start living in it, I learn a few things:

  1. You have a big dog. So… that little white picket fence isn’t going to work.
  2. Your mother is in a wheelchair. She can’t get in the house because of the little stoop, and even if she could, the layout inside the house is too tight and the carpet will get ruined in the winter by the mess the chair tracks in. So that’s not the best.
  3. And finally, turns out you’re forever alone and hate people, so the giant kitchen built for entertaining is kind of a useless waste of space.

I know what you’re thinking – houses don’t get built this way (although there are definitely some horror stories along these lines). It would be completely asinine. The sad truth, though, is that an alarming amount of web and software projects do get built in this fashion. And that needs to stop.

How do we stop it? You guessed it: by practicing user-centered design. UCD is a design methodology that puts the users of the products we build at the core of our process, in turn getting all invested parties on the same team working towards the same goal. Another definition:

User-centered design (UCD) is a framework of processes (not restricted to interfaces or technologies) in which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product, service or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process (source)

user centred design graphic

As designers, we need to check our egos at the door. That’s not to mean we shouldn’t be confident in our skills, but we need to understand that we can only produce the best work if we work with and for the end users of a product. We need to balance confidence and humility; we need to understand and empathize.

By doing these things, and truly believing in user-centered design, we can make better products that make for happy users and clients – and we can be happier ourselves as well. Here’s how to do exactly that.

The Principles of User-Centered Design

We can think of UCD as a belief system built around some core principles. A great summary of UCD (via Wikipedia) states that we should try to “optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behaviour to accommodate the product.”

Realistically, that statement is based around 6 core principles (as per ISO standard 52075):

Principle 1: The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments. We design and build products for people. How can we expect to do great work if we don’t really understand them, the tasks they need to accomplish, and the environment they’re doing the work in?

Principle 2: Users are involved throughout design and development. Further to Principle 1: we can’t expect to develop an “explicit understanding” of our users solely at the project outset. This understanding is one that grows and matures over time, and thus we need to involve our users as much as is feasible throughout the project lifecycle.

Principle 3: The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation. Too often we fall into designing to our personal preferences, or the client (who may not be the user) steers the project based on their personal wishes. That doesn’t fly in UCD – we need to focus evaluation of the product and user experience from the actual user’s perspective.

Principle 4: The process is iterative. We can’t build truly successful projects without accounting for evaluation and iteration. Too often we fall into a “scope it, build it, ship it, on to the next project” mentality – a constant battle here at Paper Leaf – but that method doesn’t let us evaluate how users use and feel about the product, and improve on it based on that evaluation.

Principle 5: The design addresses the whole user experience. It’s not just about visual design. It’s not just about page load times, or efficient workflows. It’s about the quality of the holistic experience of the entire product we’re creating itself, not each compartmentalized section.

Principle 6: The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives. Broader perspectives and skills have been proven to produce more innovative work – in fact, there’s a great article at Scientific American about diversity, and how it affects the things we make. Diversity produces better work “not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”

Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

How Can User-Centered Design Solve Our Problems?

You know those problems we talked about at the beginning of this article? The stuff that frustrates almost every designer? User-centered design can solve those problems – I can say that confidently as we’ve put it into practice at Paper Leaf, and have seen the results. Let’s break those common problems down, and how UCD prevents them.

Clients playing art director? UCD is not necessarily about what the client likes or wants. It’s not about what we like or want, as designers, either. It’s about our users. Following UCD means we’re all on the same team, working for the user, and we have research and information to back up our design choices. At the end of the day, UCD removes both the client and our own preferences and ego.

Delivered something we don’t want our name on? Often, this is an outcome of non-user-centered thinking. UCD means informed design with a clear focus. When all parties are informed, we can make confident decisions and avoid making poor design decisions based on personal preferences. We can steer conversations that are detrimental to the product away from personal preference and back towards established design best practices and what is best for the user. Plus, removing problem 1 (clients as art directors) helps with problem 2.

Building products nobody loves or uses? This absolutely kills motivation. UCD means we know our users and involve them – and when we properly involve, listen to, and respect our users, it’s much easier to make something they like. Delivering products that users love, in our opinion, is a huge part of happiness and job satisfaction.

Professional relationships turning sour because of how a project turned out? Solving all of the above problems through UCD, and buying into it, means everyone on the project team – client, agency, users – are working towards a unified goal. It leads to the removal of egos, happy clients, happy users, and successful projects. That’s how you keep relationships great, satisfaction levels high, and referrals coming in the door too.

Bottom line: user-centered design, when paired with competence, respect, and communication skills, will solve many of the issues that make us all hate our job some days. We’ve seen it happen at Paper Leaf.

How to Apply User-Centered Design

Alright, so you’re drinking the UCD Kool-Aid. But how do we actually put user-centered design into practice? Let’s chat about 4 simple ways you can start applying UCD principles.

User Interviews & Observational Research

If we’re going to involve our users and understand their needs to build them something they love, we need to talk to them and watch them use the product. Here’s a few questions to ask, or items to look for, while conducting user interviews and research:

  1. What do they dislike about the current implementation?
  2. What are their pain points?
  3. What would they love to see in the new version?
  4. What concerns them about a redesign?
  5. In what environments do they interact with the product?
  6. How do those environments relate to tasks?
  7. What tasks do they need to accomplish?
  8. How are they accomplishing their tasks currently?
  9. What goals do they have?

If possible, record video and have the user articulate what they’re doing. Otherwise, take notes like a crazy person. And don’t forget, user interviews and observational research aren’t only applicable to early-stage prototypes or reviewing the existing website / application – they can be used throughout the course of the design and build cycle.

User Personas

User Personas are a core element of every project we tackle, and they’re invaluable. At their simplest, User Personas are fictionalized, written representations of the users of a product – but they should absolutely be based on actual users, not something a C-level executive has just dreamt up.

We use Personas here as a foundation for the entire project. Whenever there is a decision to be made, or disagreement between any project team members, we try to bring that discussion back around to the persona it affects – does this decision help Kayla the Communications Manager meet her goals?

Here’s a great post on Personas over at Medium, and a great Persona Template by BlankDots to get you started.

User Flows

We’ve interviewed and observed our users, and captured them in our Hemingway-esque Personas. User flows, then, are a great next step. They can be used to outline the logical steps required for a specific user to accomplish a task, and how that relates to the product. As well, they’re a great way to remove unneeded steps, find missing pieces, and stay on budget by avoiding costly development rework.

As with any of these examples, entire posts can be (and have been) written on the subject of user flows. In fact, here’s a great one with visual examples from ConversionXL. Worth a read!

User Testing

Lastly, let’s talk about testing and iterating. The absolute worst thing we can do as product designers and developers is get a spec list, disappear for a number of weeks, and come back with “the solution” like the story that started this article. We absolutely need to test at various stages along the way. Think of it like icing a cake in layers.

User testing can be done in a variety of ways: for example, in-person testing in the user’s environment, or online using tools like The keys to successful user testing are what’s truly important:

  1. The testers are representative of the actual users
  2. They are tasked with completing clear tasks / objectives /scenarios, and
  3. Data is recorded, distilled, and acted on.

Who Else is Following UCD Principles?

If you need more proof that user-centered design is worth pursuing, maybe we should talk about who else is doing it and the results they’re getting from UCD. After all, it’s not just us. Some of the biggest brands you know, both in tech as well as other industries, follow UCD methodologies. Here are two quick examples.

mailchimp persona posters


The beautiful user persona posters you see above were made by MailChimp for their 2013 redesign. Their UX team also travelled 50,000+ miles to meet with users and get input and feedback. If you’re familiar with MailChimp, you’ll know that they have a truly unique product that is innovative and intuitive. But their UCD-based practices have not only led to a qualitatively better product – it’s quantitatively better too. Proof? In 2013 they gained over 2M new users.

swiffer logo


Didn’t see THAT one coming, did ya? Bear with me though – it’s interesting to learn how UCD can be applied to products other than digital ones. Dalberg has a solid post on this whole story, but here’s the most interesting bit: “Procter & Gamble researchers studied the entire cleaning experience – including the steps of buying, using, washing, storing, and discarding the cleaning product – to understand what consumers found difficult or inconvenient about floor cleaning. Based on these hours and hours of consumer observation – described by the CEO as ‘about the most boring footage you can imagine,’ the researchers user-tested and developed a cleaning solution which now brings in about $500 million per year in annual sales.”

I’d say that worked out well. There ya have it – two of many examples of large companies using UCD with real product impact.

Challenges and Obstacles

At the end of the day, user-centered design doesn’t come free of challenges or obstacles. The two biggest ones we’ve faced, and you’ll likely face in your move towards UCD, are budget and buy-in. Let’s briefly touch on each.


I know – you’re not P&G, or MailChimp for that matter. Neither are we. You don’t have huge budgets for months of observation, and neither do your clients. Guess what? We don’t, either.

Two big points on budget. One: you can keep UCD practices lean. You don’t have to drive across the country to observe users; use Skype, or a cost-friendly online tool like the previously mentioned Don’t have the budget to write up User Personas? Send along an example to your client, and have them do it – it’s better than not having them. At the end of the day, there are solutions to the budget issue that still allow you to follow UCD practices.

The second, and likely more important point: it’s important to weigh the cost of UCD practices – conducting research, writing personas, mapping out user flows – vs. the cost of getting it wrong and having to redo the work. When we involve users and follow the principles of user-centered design, we lower risk and increase our chances of getting it right. I don’t know about you, but we’ve been burned in the past by being the well-intentioned but misguided “Expert Homebuilder” mentioned above, building something that wasn’t user-centered, and then having to redo the work because we missed the mark. We’ve learned that lesson, which is one of the reasons we follow UCD.

Budget doesn’t have to be a stopper with regards to UCD – in fact, at the end of the day, it can actually save us all time and money.

Getting Buy-In

That same argument – that UCD lowers risk and can actually save time and money – is the best method to get buy-in from internal collaborators (your management or product team) and key external parties (clients and users) as well. Let’s face it: when it comes to business, everyone wants to lower risk, increase efficiency, and make more cash.

I recommend using the above examples from MailChimp and P&G to illustrate the potential benefits of UCD as a methodology as well.


Let’s be clear: we have no skin in the game when it comes to user-centered design. If you adopt it, we don’t get some sort of royalty cheque from the User-Centered Design Association of Canada (no, that’s not a thing, but that sure would be neat). We just believe in it, and have seen it bring about positive change for us and our clients. We truly believe that making the users the focus of our design efforts is the key to happiness for everyone involved in a project: the user, the client, and the designer.

Here’s a few thoughts to leave with:

  1. It’s not about us and our egos.
  2. It’s about understanding our users, their goals, and their environment.
  3. It’s about involving our users along the way.
  4. It’s about truly buying in to being a part of a team whose collective interest is aligned in designing the best product for the people using it.

We have the opportunity to affect real, positive change through design – and find more satisfaction in our roles as designers – if we do it right, and put the user first.

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