Techniques for creating a User Centered Design

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Techniques for creating a web based User-Centered Design

A User-centered design (UCD) is a philosophy and a process. It is a philosophy that places the person (as opposed to the 'thing') at the center; it is a process that focuses on cognitive factors (such as perception, memory, learning, problem-solving, etc.) as they come into play during peoples' interactions with things. UCD seeks to answer questions about users and their tasks and goals, and then use the findings to drive development and design (Katz-Haas). An effective UCD is essential for any high functioning web page. The importance of a UCD lies within its ability to communicate with the user in a way that allows a thorough and simple presentation of the sites content and navigation conventions. This article will cover six principle conventions of a UCD that will work in conjunction with each other to create an effective UCD.

Navigation Aids

The first principle that all Web design should understand when they are creating an effective web based UCD is navigation aids that are clear and consistent. All users are expected to navigate through cyber space via Hyperlink. Lynch and Horton, authors of The Web Style Guide believe that the most problematic design issue when it comes to navigation aids is users who lack a sense of where they are within the hierarchy of a site.

To counteract lost visitors, the style guide suggests that the designer can use clear, consistent icons, graphics, and identity schemes (Lynch and Horton 2002). Professor James R. Grunwald suggests that if a web site is going to be useful, it must be easy to navigate. Navigation occurs at two levels; within a particular web site and between web sites. Menus are often used to aid navigation within a web site (Grunwald 1997). The site design should always allow users to easily return to the home page and other upper level pages. The links that accomplish this should be placed in a consistent position on every page.


Simplicity and Consistency

The second principle is in direct relation to the first, and it deals with simple, consistent, conventional design. Users do not appreciate an over-designed site. The average website should follow all conventions of layout and navigation because users are already familiar with them. A website should be consistent and predictable (Lynch and Horton 2002). For maximum functionality and legibility, your page and site design should be built on a consistent pattern of modular units that all share the same basic layout grids, graphic themes, editorial conventions, and hierarchies of organization (Lynch and Horton 2002). To be more specific, Grunwald suggests that designers keep page lengths short, use appropriate text fonts and styles, and use color appropriately (Grunwald 1997). These are all important concepts to keep in mind when building a UCD because certain colors and fonts have specific rhetorical effects on an audience and a long page length is an immediate deterrent. Conventional design lends the user some automatic familiarity which will directly affect whether or not the user has a good feeling about the website.

Dead Links

The third principle to keep in mind deals with dead links. Designer should always be aware of all links to, from, and within the site. Most web pages do not begin with a preface explaining where, within the hierarchy, a page lies (Lynch and Horton 2002). So, it is important that if users are directed directly to a subsection of a website that they are not restricted to that page and others lower in the hierarchical scheme. Designers should place working links on every page that allow the users to go to the homepage and other main pages within the site. Grunwald points out that one way to enhance the navigability within a site is to include navigation aids such as "return to home page", "previous page", and "next page" links on each web page. This not only increases the navigability within your site, but allows users who enter your site on a page other than your home page, to easily find their way around. While you don't have control over other sites, you do have control over the links from your sites to other sites. (Grunwald 1997)

Direct Access to Information

The fourth principle that is important to an intelligent UCD is obtaining the sought after information in the fewest number of clicks. Direct access requires the designer to create a very efficient hierarchy of content in order to decrease the number of steps it takes a user to find what they are looking for. Studies have shown that users prefer menus that present 5 to 7 links and that they prefer a few very dense screens of choices to many layers of simplified menus. The Design hierarchy should allow for real content to be only a click or two away from the site’s main pages (Lynch and Horton 2002). A UCD needs to communicate clearly with the intended user. In order to communicate clearly, a user interface should be well organized and structured. (Grunwald 1997) Should the user have trouble finding the information they are looking for in a reasonable amount of time, the particular site they are visiting will forever have made an unfavorable first impression.

Visual Confirmation

The fifth principle involved with creating an effective web based UCD accomplishes visual confirmation of the user’s location within a site (Lynch and Horton 2002). Whether it is through links, titles and headings or a breadcrumb trail, the user should always have visual feedback from the site as to their position within the site. This gives the user a frame from which to work from. Knowing a relative or concrete position within a site lets the user feel comfortable and open to the message of the site, it also lends ethos to the site.

The Web site designer should also allow for dialog with the users. When the design process begins, the web site designer should have a good idea of the intended audience, but through dialog with the user, the designer can make helpful changes to the UCD based on the information gathered from and about the sites users. Providing an email address and other contact information lets the users establish contact with the webmaster (Lynch and Horton 2002).

Connection Speed

The sixth and final principle needed in order to create an effective web based UCD is a technical issue. Not everyone accesses the web via a high speed connection. Designers should be aware of this and construct a site that can be handled by a slower internet connection. All users get frustrated when they have to wait on a page to load. Web page designs that are not well suited to connection speed of the average user will probably lose traffic. Research has shown that for most computing tasks the threshold of frustration is about ten seconds (Lynch and Horton 2002). Designers should be conservative with the number of large graphics because not all users have a high speed connection, and although some do, they still value a fast loading page.

All these principles working in conjunction with one another should allow for an effective web based UCD. These principles create design integrity and functional stability (Lynch and Horton 2002). An effective UCD is the first step in securing high traffic and a profitable return on investment. Obviously there are many more UCD techniques not discussed here, but these six should get any designer off in the right track.

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