Lather-Rinse-Repeat: A User-Centered Design Approach

2004-02-20
Reprinted from The Triangle TechJournal

User-Centered Design.hmm.seems intuitive, doesn't it? Obviously, if we're launching something onto the World Wide Web, we must be expecting someone to use it — duh. Though this may be true, many companies are missing the mark and their audience and, consequently, their business objectives by failing to successfully integrate the user. A User-Centered Design approach can create successes by merging business and user objectives to deliver a service that users value, while generating a benefit for the business. In fact, studies show that with a User-Centered Design you could realize returns of $10 to $100 for every $1 you invest in making your site easier to use.

With that fact, you're now probably nodding to the importance of User-Centered Design, and hoping that we will not leave you hanging on the how-to. Never fear — we'll share. Leading by example, let's assume that we have been tasked to redesign the American Red Cross donations page with two people in two days. The User-Centered Design tools selected for this project are tailored to the project situation, which includes duration, budget, and objectives.

Step 1 — Define Phase

This is the data gathering stage. Before any pixels are pushed, we must understand what we are building, why we are building it from both a business and user perspective, and how it will be used. That is, we must understand the business objectives for building or redesigning the site, the audience who will be using the site, and the vision for the site itself. Tools used in the Define stage include: Project situation definition, Business objectives, Audience definition, Personas, Scenarios, Surveys, Contextual inquiry, Ethnography, Interviews, Card sorting, Usability testing, Log analysis, Customer feedback analysis, and Competitive matrix.

  1. Project Situation — The Red Cross is launching a direct mail donations campaign in two days. The mailers not only encourage mail-in donations, but also reference the Web site's donations page. The new marketing director feels that the current donations page does not present information as succinctly or useful as possible. Knowing that the mailers are stamped and ready to go and that new users will be visiting the donations page in a matter of days, she has assigned the task of redesigning the page within two days to two people. This redesign will represent the beginning of an iterative improvement cycle for this portion of the Web site.

    The clock is ticking for our development team, which includes an interaction designer and an information architect. With only two days to redesign the donations page, many of the user-centered design tools are out of the question. To ensure we don't lose sight of the business or user objectives, the tools selected for the Define phase are: Business Objectives, Personas, and Scenarios.

  2. Business Objectives — Business objectives can include increasing revenue from the site, increasing user registration, decreasing phone orders, and decreasing customer support calls. Notice that the business objectives do not explicitly define how they will be achieved. In this stage, objectives are defined at a strategic level, which will allow designers to analyze the data gathered during the Define phase, then investigate the best ways to achieve these objectives during the Analyze phase.

    Business Objectives for this project:

    • To increase awareness of donation options
    • To increase donations.
  3. Personas — Personas put faces to an audience to encourage user empathy through the design cycle. Personas are a set of fictional, representative user archetypes based on the behaviors, attitudes, and goals of the target users. Personas have names, personalities, pictures, personal backgrounds, families, and most importantly, goals. The types and characteristics of the personas are determined through qualitative research that includes reviewing the client's market segmentation, demographic data, product domain, and user population.

    Excerpt from a persona for this project:

    Joan is a 46-year-old pharmacist who works at a major regional chain in Owensboro, Kentucky. She lives with her husband, Bruce, who is a CAD designer. Joan uses the Internet an average of an hour a day — primarily for email, an intranet application for inventory, and eBay shopping.

  4. Scenarios — Scenarios are descriptions that illustrate how a user is intending to use a system, essentially capturing the system behavior from the user's point of view. Scenarios help establish user empathy by giving the Persona a story.

    Excerpt from a scenario for this project:

    It's been a hectic month for Joan. Christie, her first daughter, who lives about 15 minutes away, just gave birth to her first, and only, grandchild, Tyler. And Susan, her second daughter, has recently been accepted to the Journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in North Carolina. It's the day after pay day, and Joan finally finds the time to sit down to pay bills and bring some order to the home office.

  5. Content Inventory — A content inventory identifies what content already exists on the page or site being redesigned. When redesigning an entire site, the focus of a content inventory will often be on a page- or API-level. When improving a single piece of functionality, like the donations page, the content inventory focuses on granular content. The information architect goes over the current donations page with a fine-toothed comb, noting every morsel of information on the page so that they can be grouped into a Content Model in the Analyze phase.

Step 2 — Analyze Phase

Once the data has been gathered, it must be analyzed to ensure that the intended service is valuable to both the users and the business. It is not uncommon for other ideas to evolve from this analysis — ideas to improve the current site or for future additions. It is possible to discover an even more profitable (business) and valuable (user) way to meet the business objectives and user needs.

As with the Define stage, there are a variety of tools that can be used in the Analyze stage, including: Content model, Mental model, Gap analysis, Task analysis, Competitive analysis, and Goals/Metrics.

The analysis tools chosen for this project are: Content model and Goals/metrics.

  1. Content Model — Once all the content is inventoried, it is structured. Our goal is to group content in a meaningful way for the users and to prioritize the groupings based on their needs.

  2. Goals/metrics — Based on user research and strategic Business Objectives, tactical goals are defined. At this time, some of the objectives may be revised to better meet user expectations and to maximize business benefits. Well-defined goals direct the Web team on how to prioritize changes. Setting metrics to measure success helps establish accountability, and make you — and your Web team — more confident of their effectiveness and business value.

    Goals for this project:

    • Increase click-thru to the online donations form.
    • Increase click-thru to options other than “Donate Online”.
    • Decrease the time to locate a preferred donation option.

Step 3 - Design/Deploy, Test, and Analyze Cycle

Now that the data has been analyzed, requirements can be written and the site or application can be designed. When possible, each functioning component or set of functioning components of the site or application is user-tested as it is completed. Once the system is functioning, don't be afraid to deploy. Remember — it is the Web, and you can change it, so make incremental improvements and iterate, iterate, iterate.

And back to the Red Cross — the team finished the job on-time and on-budget. 

If this example were to continue, the next steps would include: 1) Iterate the process and do more robust definition and analysis — and — 2) Measure the results through metrics and refine as necessary. Yes, this process is similar to shampoo's Lather-Rinse-Repeat. The inherent cyclical nature of this approach ensures that improvements to the Red Cross donations page is not limited to a quickie project for a single marketing campaign. The page can go live in conjunction with the direct mail campaign without forsaking future improvements.

Through iteration and by employing as many user-centered design tools as appropriate, more and more is learned about what the users want. And by integrating these findings into the site or application, a better product is provided that customers will value more highly, which will ultimately lead to greater business benefits.