User centered design (or UCD) is an approach to software or systems design that puts the user at the center of the process.  It focuses on designing for user needs, and relies on user feedback to fine-tune the process.  It is a highly effective way of ensuring that a Website, intranet, mobile application or software product will get used, and provide a return on investment for your development dollars.

Sometimes a prospective client will like the concept of UCD, and express the desire to incorporate user feedback into their project, but not be really sure what that means for the project plan or the budget.

I have found the following approaches to collecting user feedback to be all very effective as a starting point in planning a design or redesign:

1) Collate historical user comments and complaints
Collate the user comments and complaints Customer Service or Tech Support has received to-date and look for trends.  Are people complaining about bugs, or that they can’t find information, or that certain things are hard to do?

2) Personally interview a selected sample of your users
If you know who your users are, and have access to them, go talk to them!  Define a set of questions you’d like answered, and get in front of your users.  They are a rich repository of information.  The themes that come out of this Q&A are useful, as is the diversity of information. Even 5-10 users will give you an interesting set of feedback.

3) Do an online survey
Survey Monkey and other tools like it offer free tools for short user surveys.  If you have your user emails and they have allowed you to send them communications via email, send out a survey to a wider group (30–50). The built-in analytical tools make analyzing the results powerful, fast, and surprisingly easy.

4) Hold a user workshop
For large sites and applications with invested populations of users, you may be able to get users to attend a user workshop conducted either on your premises, at a hotel, etc.  It’s invaluable.

5) Show mock-ups of work-in-progress
You can do this with either low-fidelity (such as PowerPoint wireframes) or high-fidelity (fully-fleshed out layouts with art direction) prototypes of your design work.  Both are very useful for different points in the design process.

6) Run a usability test
Usability testing is generally best reserved for when you have an interactive prototype of your site or app.  It doesn’t have to have all functionality to give you useful results, but the key flows should be there. It’s best to use a structured approach to this (a written moderator guide) and to record the results on video, as it is hard to both conduct a test and analyze it at the same time. Analysis takes some time for a usability test, but it always yields helpful results.

All of these approaches to soliciting user feedback will help in your user-centered design project.  Exactly which approaches are best for your project will depend on your budget, your timeframe, and your resources.  Even if you only use one or two of these techniques, they’re worth trying, as they will inevitably improve the design, and give the users what they’re looking for.

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