Web Science and Rocket Design

As a professional interactive and web designer of some 15 years experience, I often follow instinct and gut feeling when working on design and usability problems, but that instinct is no match for the raw factual information gathered from using a solid process.

That’s why it’s extremely important that you follow a logical, systematic approach that will deliver the data you need to make informed decisions. Let’s face it, I’m not building rockets and I’m definitely not a neurosurgeon. Pretty much anyone can throw a website together these days, but the difference between a website made by an amateur who has little to no understanding of what they are really supposed to be doing (Lings Cars), and one superbly crafted by someone who does (Jet Blue), is pretty obvious.

In the column,  Field of Dreams I broached the “build it and they will come” attitude to designing and developing a service or product, and tried to explain why the approach is flawed unless you take the time to consider who will be using it, why and how.

I am sure that more than a few of you reading this are guilty of having asked agencies for “pitch” or “speculative” creative work when sending out RFPs for a new website, app, or integrated digital campaign. The problem with this is that none of these items are static billboards, print ads, or things that people are going to simply watch or read. These are things that people are going to interact with, mostly with a mouse but ever increasingly, with finger taps, pinches and swipes. They will have expectations, and they will have goals, and the ultimate success of your service or product relies on understanding what they are.

Design is about solving a problem, web and digital design even more so, and the graphics are only half of the solution. Without considering business and user goals in the beginning, your product is destined for failure, because it’s the usability and utility that will determine the success, not how pretty or “cool” the design is. Reality check – users don’t care how awesome your website looks, especially not if they can’t find what it is they have come there for.

It’s also difficult for vendors to answer the “How much will a new website/app/software interface cost?” question if they know nothing about the scope, technical requirements, your business or the primary, secondary and tertiary user groups. If it’s an app, will it be native, a web-app, or hybrid? If it’s an e-commerce website, will users expect to create an online account to track their orders and save favorites to a wishlist (undoubtedly), and will they want to create that account by linking it to their Facebook or Twitter info (increasingly so)? If these requirements are not defined and a realistic budget set early on, the chance of project delay and failure greatly increases.

What Is User-Centred Design?

A user-centred design process is one in which the needs, wants, and limitations of the user and business are given extensive attention at each stage of the development or the product or service, and there are four important principles that govern it:

  • A clear understanding of user and task requirements
  • Incorporating user feedback to refine requirements and design
  • Active involvement of user to evaluate designs
  • Integrating user centred design with other development activities

Analysis and Requirements

This is the most important planning stage of the process. Here, you decide what it is you are going to do. What will define the success of the project, what are the overall business objectives, what resources are available internally, and what constraints (budget, time etc) are there?

If you cannot easily identify who will be using the product or service, and how, then you will probably have to do some research in the form of focus groups, questionnaires and interviews, and developing user personas.

Usability requirements at this stage will involve defining main user goals, developing and prioritizing a list of tasks they will need to do, and defining the characteristics of these tasks, and will ultimately lead to a functional requirements document.


The beginning phases of the design stage address less of the aesthetic qualities, and focus more on structural planning (user flow and navigation to support tasks) and mock-ups or prototypes (preferably as interactive as possible) to get user feedback on whether the proposed solutions are meeting their needs.  This constant checking that the design concepts are headed in the right direction minimises the risk of developing solutions that don’t work. As an iterative process, the solutions are thus improved until requirements are met.


The best kind of feedback is going to come from testing your proposed design solutions with people who will be using it in the real world. This can take the form of paper prototypes or simple sketches, all the way to fully immersive usability lab testing where users are watched and recorded as they try to perform tasks. The results should be given back to the designers as quickly as possible so that they can apply changes or make fixes rapidly for the next iteration.


As a general overview an introduction to User Centred Design I hope this has given you some insight into the practice is important. If you are interested in a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the process, I highly recommend you download and read the PDF below by Pascal Raabe as it is an excellent infographic that covers most of, if not all the most important considerations and phases.

Homepage photo from Shutterstock.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.