What does being "user-centered" mean?
User-centered designers are able to design whatever they are designing, whether that is a product or a service, around how users can actually use the product/service, rather than forcing the people to change their behavior to accommodate the product/service.
There are three levels from which designers can approach user-centered designing. The designer and user become closer to each other as one progresses through the levels. Designers might choose to focus on the level on which they feel most comfortable. Or they might choose to start at Level 1 and then advance to Levels 2 and 3 as they gain experience.
1. Learning from people.
2. Empathy with people
3. Co-designing with people.
Level 1: Learning from people.
A designer can become user-centered by paying more attention to what people say and do. In Level 1 the people (who might become the users of the product or service) are viewed by the designer from a distance.
To learn from people, listen to what people say. Let them do the talking. The best way to do this is in a face-to face conversation. Have a few questions ready to get the conversation started and then let the conversation go in the way that is the most natural.
Observe what people do as they go about their daily lives. You do not want to intrude on their lives so just watch and make notes later about what was interesting or surprising. Once you start observing carefully, you will notice all kinds of insights and opportunities.
For example, if you are interested in learning from people about your products or services, have conversations with them about your products or services. Or watch them as they shop for and/or use your products and services. If you have conversations with people in their natural environments you will be able to learn from what they say and do simultaneously.
Level 2: Empathy with people.
A designer can become more user-centered by learning to empathize with people, i.e., understand them and share their feelings. Empathic designers attempt to get closer to the lives and experiences of their future users in order to design products or services that better meet their needs. Design empathy goes beyond watching people in their natural environments and talking to them. Empathy requires that the designer first step out of their own perspective in order to enter into the perspective of the user. Then the designer must return to his or her own perspective, having been influenced by the stepping into and out of the user's life (Kouprie and Sleeswijk Visser, 2009). It takes courage and confidence to do this.
Some activities that designers can practice to become empathic designers include immersing themselves in the user's environment and lifestyle. This goes beyond observing and becomes a new way of living, at least for a while. Another approach is to use role-playing techniques such as acting out the user's life. The use of Virtual Reality, although still out of reach for many, holds great promise for new ways to empathize with people. A good example of this is the TED Talk by Chris Milk called How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine.
Level 3: Co-designing with people.
A designer can become more user-centered by inviting people to partner with him or her in the design and development process. In Level 3, people (who might become the users of the product or service) are seen as participants in the design process. Their relationship to the designer is very close. In fact, I would say that this is better described as a human-centered approach. Co-designing with people is the most extreme form of user-centered design as it means that the designer must recognize that others are the experts when it comes to their experiences of the past, present and the future.
In designing with people you will need to engage them in an iterative and interactive exploration of making, telling and enacting. For example, you might invite users to visualize their ideas for future experience by using generative tools for making such as image collaging or Velcro-modeling. Then you would ask them to share what they have made by telling how they would use it. Or you might ask them to demonstrate how it would fit into their lives by using it as a prop when enacting future scenarios. The interested reader will want to refer to Sanders and Stappers, 2012（http://studiolab.ide.tudelft.nl/convivialtoolbox/ ）for more ideas about co-designing with people.
Kouprie, M. and Sleeswijk Visser, F. (2009) A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of the user's life, Journal of Engineering Design, Vol. 20, No. 5, October 2009, 437-448
Milk, C. How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine, TED Talk, April 22, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXHil1TPxvA
Sanders, E.B.-N. and Stappers, P.J. (2012) Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design, BIS Publishers, Amsterdam.