Building Digital Products With a User-Centered Design Approach

There are many reasons a new digital product can flop. Among these, there’s a particular reason that seems easy to avoid but is surprisingly common: many product creators fail to put users at the center of the design process.

What does this mean?

Well, instead of taking the time to really talk to their audience to understand their needs, wants, and habits firsthand, many creators will make assumptions. And assumptions can be the nail in the coffin.

User-centered design (UCD) can help counter this. It uses investigative and generative methods to work through 4 key steps:

  1. Understand the who, when, why, and how
  2. Specify what your users (and your business) needs
  3. Design your solution
  4. Evaluate how well you met the requirements

Let’s review these methods and steps to make sure you’re creating apps that people will actually use (and love!).

Investigative and generative methods: An overview

In user-centered design, investigative and generative methods can be used to help designers gather information about users and generate creative solutions that address their needs. These two methods are different from each other. However, they complement each other closely.

Investigative methods

These are typically used at the beginning of the design journey to gather insights and understand the context in which people will use the product. They involve studying users, their behaviors, and the environment where they interact with the product. This can include:

  • User interviews, in-person or virtually
  • Surveys and questionnaires on paper or online
  • Contextual inquiry, or observing users as they interact with the app or a similar one
  • Competitor analysis to see what’s out there so far

Generative methods

Generative methods come into play once you have a solid understanding of users and their needs. These methods use creativity to generate a variety of solutions and can include:

  • Brainstorming sessions with the internal team
  • Mind mapping to organize concepts and features
  • Persona creation to map out a fictional ideal user
  • User flows, wireframes, and concept designs
  • Prototyping to bring the plan to life

4 steps to user-centered design

Let’s look at the 4 primary steps of user-centered design and how the 2 design methods are weaved throughout them.

1. Understand the who, when, where, why, and how

Here’s where your investigative expertise will shine. It’s absolutely imperative that you understand your audience. And not just what you think you know about them — you need to get “on the ground” and have direct conversations with them.

Learn things like:

  • Demographics, like age, gender, occupation, income, education, etc.
  • The pain points and needs they have that will lead them to your app
  • The context in which they’ll interact with your app: when, where, and how they’ll use it
  • What they expect from your app in terms of functionality and outcomes
  • What they love and hate about your competitors (if you have any)
  • What they love and hate about your existing app, if you’re updating

Interviews, surveys, and observations will go a long way before you even start development.

2. Specify what your users (and your business) needs

Now, you want to turn all that golden knowledge into clear and measurable requirements, guidelines, and design principles. Generative methods come into play here, especially with things like brainstorming, mind mapping, and persona creation.

When looking at user requirements, consider both functional and non-functional ones. Functional requirements outline the features and capabilities your product needs to have, while non-functional requirements focus on things like performance, security, and usability.

Consider these from the user’s perspective, but of course, you should always keep your company’s goals in mind to make sure the customer side and business side are as aligned as possible.

Once you’ve outlined and documented your needs and requirements, you’ll have a roadmap for the design and development process. This way, you can start off smooth, and be better prepared for any twists and turns that might happen later.

3. Design your solution

Here’s where generative methods really come to life as you find creative ways to solve your audience’s problems, needs, and expectations. The design phase should use your early roadmap to work through creative processes like user flows, wireframes, and concept designs.

Cross-functional collaboration is important here: you’ll want to loop in all the teams and leaders that will be working on this project to make sure you’re looking at the problem (and goal) from different perspectives, insights, and areas of expertise.

When everyone has agreed, you’re ready to bring your ideas to life with clickable prototypes or even just clickable wireframes. Not everyone will take this step, but I’m a firm believer in its importance for a few reasons:

  • Showcases how the final product will work
  • Streamlines any fine-tuning or edits needed before development
  • Ensures everyone is on the same page

4. Launch and evaluate

Once your prototypes are cleared by internal teams and other important stakeholders, you’re ready to launch. In some cases, you might choose to launch a minimum viable product (MVP) to get your core ideas out to your audience faster. This can help you get early feedback so you can iterate quickly and smoothly.

Here’s where investigative methods loop back around. After your release, you’ll want to do your own testing, like QA and heuristic evaluations. You’ll also want to gather as much information as possible about what your early audience thinks of it, using strategies like:

  • Usability testing to watch real users interact with the app (you can observe how they use it and if they have any issues or confusion)
  • Feedback sessions to understand the emotional and subjective aspects of the user experience

Case study: Healthweave

Healthweave is a great example of a user-centric redesign that had major benefits for the customers — and therefore the business.

The initial app was very basic: an appointment scheduler for chiropractic patients.

Healthweave came to the team at Dazlab to reimagine it from a user’s perspective and turn it into something people really wanted to use.

After working directly with existing app users and customers, we added new features based on what they wanted to do and see in the app. These included

  • Encouragement and guidance on doing their exercises between sessions
  • Reminders to book their next sessions
  • Monitoring tools for their pain levels before and after sessions
  • Measuring tools for treatment effectiveness
  • Ability to buy tools and equipment for their recovery
  • Nutritional planning to help manage their diet

The new app became a holistic health hub for customers, and it brought Healthweave a major boost in business.

User-centric design

Focus on customers and the benefits will follow

User-centric design (UCD) is non-negotiable if you want to make an app that your users will find truly useful — and use it enough that it becomes a regular habit.

Take the time to do your research and really listen to customers and your target audience, then find creative ways to implement those findings that benefit everyone. After all, a win for your customers is a win for your company.


Darren Clark

Dazlab Founder

“I started Dazlab because there’s a huge knowledge deficit between people who want software built and those that build the software. I watched again and again as non-tech product owners with great ideas overpaid for complicated solutions to simple problems, or underpaid only to end up with crummy products with little chance of lasting. Tech doesn’t have to be that way. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it well or what’s the point?. Even now, 20 years later I’m still heavily involved in the onboarding process with every one of my clients.”

Darren Clark

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