Designing for your customers

Effective user-centred design requires a thorough understanding of your end-user and their needs so that you can tailor your product or service to meet those requirements.


10 min read

1. Overview

To have the best chance of creating and selling an innovative and commercially successful service or product, you need to have an in-depth understanding of end-users' requirements. End-users are customers or whoever your product or service is aimed at.

User-centred design involves engaging directly with consumers in the early stages of any new product development (NPD) process and keeping them involved throughout. This gives everyone who needs to be involved - such as research, engineering or marketing teams - a clear picture of how their expertise will be called on to benefit the project. Such a unified strategy will reduce the risk of conflicting initiatives wasting your business' time and money.

Traditionally, market testing and user research are done towards the end of the NPD process, but by then significant design changes are not always viable. You will have a much better chance of business success if you actively involve your end-users in the design process.

2. Identifying your users

User-centred design is based on the concept that the best-designed products or services come from understanding the needs of the people who will use them. Most products or services undergo market testing and user research, but this often comes too late in the new product development process when significant changes might not be possible.

Ideally, you should actively engage with potential end-users in the early stages of developing a product or service. Relatively small investments in user research from the early stages of development can help set the agenda for product and service development.

First you need to identify who you mean by 'user'. Are they members of the public who might find your product on a supermarket shelf and use it in their home? Or are your users trade customers who you want to establish a service contract with? Each user will have quite different perspectives and needs. It's worth noting that you may identify more than one sort of person or customer as being relevant users of your product or service, and the challenge there is to manage a design project that understands them all.

Engaging with consumers

You should engage with your potential users directly rather than basing your understanding of them and how they behave on findings from market research or from your own experiences.

You could ask them to keep video diaries while they use your product or service, or to take part in workshops where you prompt them to analyse their experience of your business and your products.

Understanding the details of individual experiences can give greater insights than the aggregated reports of market research. User-centred design should be separate to market research. Market research focuses mainly on understanding the market in general terms, for example, by:

  • identifying triggers to buy or use a product or service
  • finding acceptable price points

The individual and observational focus of user research makes it possible to:

  • identify unexpressed user needs
  • actively engage users in shaping how a product or service is developed

Give users space to express themselves

Try to keep your user research sessions as intimate as possible. Having several members of your team present is likely to inhibit participants.

If several people from your team need to be involved at any stage, it may be better for them to do their research individually and share their findings afterwards. You should also guarantee the confidentiality of your participants and reassure them that it's the problems the design work seeks to address that are being evaluated rather than them personally.

3. Observing and analysing users

It's important to immerse yourself in your users' context - the circumstances and ways people are likely to use your product. This immersion exposes unexpressed needs that might be missed without the full context. For example, spend time with users as they perform relevant tasks at home or work. While they try out your product, you should observe and note where they use things easily and where they have trouble. Take a note of what they say - however it is often the things they don't say which can give the greatest insights.

For example, representatives from a security business could spend time watching how people lock and unlock their doors. They may see that many people struggle to remember which key is for the front door and which is for the back door, even though this might not be something that the users would mention. As a result of this observation, the business may then be able to design a simple cover which people can buy to put on the top of each of their keys so they know that one colour key is for the front door and the other colour key for the back door.

This type of observational research needs to be analysed to identify any important themes that can be taken forward. In order to successfully present highlights back to your design team and improve their understanding, it's a good idea to capture your findings visually, with a camera or video recorder.

Such research should continue throughout the design project with any insights gained being used to drive the project forward. This awareness of the end-users' experience promotes innovation by encouraging established practices or assumptions to be questioned.

Prototype, evaluate, iterate

You should create prototypes and gather user feedback on these as early as possible in the design process. Depending on the nature of your project and the stage it's at, suitable prototypes can include:

  • written scenarios or sketches outlining functionality
  • computer-based simulations of functionality
  • fully-working models that represent full functionality

A viable prototype enables end-users to give feedback on how well the product or service meets their needs, and on its usability. You can gain fresh perspectives by also testing prototypes on new users who have had no previous involvement with your project.

Representing the full range of potential users

Most products and services have different types of users, so your emphasis should be on gathering input from the widest range of potential customers possible. Carrying out repeat observations or evaluations with the same type of user will limit any findings.

Make research findings vivid and enduring

You should not assume that simply carrying out the research and presenting it to your design team is enough. The findings need to be brought to life for those who weren't present to witness the research first hand.

User stories, videos, photographs, checklists and catchphrases can all be helpful. These can also be displayed where the team work to maintain a 'user presence'.

4. The business case for inclusive design

Inclusive design involves developing products, services or environments so that they can be accessed and used by the largest number of people possible. User-centred design techniques are an essential part of inclusive design - as these techniques make it possible to:

  • understand the reality of people's lives
  • evaluate products and services as they are developed
  • ensure products or services are genuinely inclusive

Inclusive design is important for social equality reasons, but it also makes good business sense. For example, by the year 2020 approximately half the adults in the UK will be aged 50 or over. With increasing age, most people experience multiple minor impairments in:

  • eyesight
  • hearing
  • dexterity
  • mobility
  • memory

Currently, a mismatch between design and the capabilities and needs of older people means that their independence can suffer. However, the introduction of anti-discrimination laws - and the disposable income of older people in the UK - are slowly encouraging designers to address this situation. Businesses are now commissioning designers to help them include this wide variety of people in their target market. This inclusive approach to design offers significant opportunity for business growth through new products and services.

Design against exclusion

An important consideration when designing a product or service inclusively is to understand and quantify how many potential users would be effectively eliminated by certain design choices. This design exclusion can take several forms. For example, your choice of design could be inadvertently excluding:

  • less mobile or dextrous users - for example, the elderly and disabled
  • less affluent users
  • users who are less technologically savvy
  • users from different cultures

The techniques of inclusive design and user-centred design are very similar. But instead of talking and researching with typical product or service users, inclusive design seeks out extreme users - the sorts of people who will demand the most from a product or service. For instance, a bathroom fittings manufacture sought out ballet dancers who needed precise bathroom lighting for performance hair and makeup. They chose to do this because these people represented an untapped market and would show that if they could easily use a range of products, then people with less specialised requirements could too.

5. The importance of ergonomics

Ergonomics is about ensuring a good fit between people and what they interact with. This could include the objects they use or the environments they live in. Ergonomics should be considered in the design of every product, system or environment.

Ergonomics are often not given enough priority early in the design process, because of commercial or time pressures. But this is a false economy. Ignoring ergonomics can lead to designs which are likely to fail commercially - as they don't fit the needs of the user.

Ergonomists are trained in analytical techniques to identify which user characteristics should be taken into account during your design process. This is important when you consider how much individuals vary in terms of:

  • body size
  • body shape
  • strength
  • mobility
  • sensory sensitivity
  • mental ability
  • experience
  • training
  • culture
  • emotions

When applied at the earliest stages of the design process, ergonomic methods often identify opportunities for innovation.

Ergonomics can be split into three broad areas:

Physical ergonomics looks at how human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics relate to physical activity. This includes:

  • working postures
  • manual handling
  • repetitive movements
  • musculoskeletal disorders
  • workplace layout and environment

Psychological ergonomics studies mental processes - eg perception, cognition, memory, reasoning and emotion - and how people interact with products, systems and environments. This includes:

  • mental workload
  • decision-making
  • human-computer interaction
  • human reliability
  • attitudes
  • stress
  • motivation
  • pleasure
  • cultural differences

Organisational ergonomics is about optimising the organisational structures, policies and processes of socio-technical systems. This includes:

  • communication
  • work design
  • staff resource management
  • working time patterns
  • co-operative work
  • quality management
  • organisational culture

To ensure your end-users' needs are kept in focus at all times, ergonomists should be an integral part of your design development team. Constantly evaluating the ergonomics of anything your business designs as it develops will help increase the likelihood that your product or service will be a success.

6. User-centred design for websites

All businesses can benefit from an accessible and easy-to-use website. Online customers who find your website intuitive are much more likely to purchase from you and revisit your website in the future.

When planning your website, you should think about how your users will want to interact with your site. Attractive and accessible design, ease of navigation, well-written content, clear 'call to actions' and well-designed e-commerce functionality will all make a difference to how effective the site is.

User-centred website development should include the following steps:

  • Understanding your business objectives and how this will affect your website - for example, are there certain requirements that will have an impact on the usability of your website?
  • Modelling different user journeys based on your customer insight - use this to help define your site map and information architecture.
  • Building 'wireframe' models of the website and other mock-ups to test the 'look and feel' of the website before full development.
  • Thinking about how your website will support the customer to achieve certain goals - eg a purchase or online registration.
  • Designing, building and testing - At this stage, you should aim to use expert evaluation alongside further user testing to ensure your understanding of the user all the way up to launch.

After launch, you should continue to collect user feedback as an on-going process, which you can use to benchmark performance and refer to when making future changes to the site. You can also assess the launched site's effectiveness using web analytics tools to show how users are navigating the site.

If resources are limited, it's worth considering using a well-designed template website rather than developing from scratch.

There is more information on designing websites in our guide Web design: best practice.


Ensuring a website is accessible to people with disabilities is good design practice and a vital consideration in user-centred design. Guidelines for website accessibility have been developed by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C).

For more advice on targeting your products and services to your customers, call us on 0845 609 6611.

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