It is an Internet reality that websites have 5 – 15 seconds to address a new visitor’s needs, or the visitor leaves for another site. This is one of the most significant, ongoing challenges faced by Web designers. Given this online behavioral principle, embracing a user-centered design philosophy seems like a no-brainer. But integrating this approach into a Web development process is more art form than science.

The Design Imperative

Simultaneously addressing user needs and design sensibilities is challenging but by no means impossible; we’ve addressed this issue in the past articles, such as Design and Usability–Bridging the Gap.

This is an age-old issue encountered by designers and artisans of all kinds: office buildings, condominiums, urban developments, automobiles, furniture, etc. Balancing visual appeal with practical usability is a necessity for all of these things, as it is with websites.

The application of a successful user-centered design philosophy ensures that both aesthetic and usability requirements are addressed.

The Basics

Over the course of hundreds of Internet projects, we’ve identified a series of steps that need to be taken in order to ensure that user needs are met in the final work product:

· Establish clear website project goals: What do we want users to do once they get to the site?

· Use quantitative data to drive discussions: Who has visited the site historically, and why?

· Talk to target users (prospects, customers, and other): This doesn’t have to be a monumental effort—talking to 5-10 people yields valuable results.

· Categorize target users into a manageable number of segments: 3-5 user groups usually suffice; recognize the 80/20 rule that’s in effect—designing for 100% of target users can be a recipe for failure.

· Get client executives involved in the process early and get their buy-in at specific checkpoints along the way; 11th hour input from top executives who don’t understand the process can be catastrophic.

· Conduct user testing. Don’t rely on what users tell you they want, but formally study the way they interact with systems.

Design is an emotional, weighty, and vexing issue for most clients, and understandably so. A company’s website is its face to the world, and many times the first encounter that people have with organizations. Visitors make go/no-go decisions about whether or not to make additional contact with companies based on limited interactions.

We’ve learned that getting the subject of user requirements into the discussion during the earliest interactions with clients, and keeping it front-and-center all the way through completion, is the only way to meet user needs.


The use of personas is an increasingly popular technique being used by the Web design community to address user needs. Introduced into the mainstream in 1999 in The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, personas have gained momentum in both the software and website design communities.

A persona is a hypothetical user, developed for interface design projects and used for guiding decisions about visual design, functionality, navigation, and content. Personas are developed through research and interviews with client team members and actual users (e.g., customers, prospects, etc.).

A Process, Not a One-Time Event

Regardless of the rigor applied in user-centered design philosophies, it is important to recognize that Web design is evolutionary. Our architectural and engineering design counterparts do not have the same luxury, since their work products are physical structures that can be difficult and costly to modify.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Web is its malleability. Using tracking and analytical tools, website refinements can be made relatively quickly to accommodate changing user behaviors based on actual website activity—with the goal of optimizing ongoing website performance as the underlying goal.

Bottom Line

In the online world, effective design is a combination of visual appeal, user-friendliness, and functionality. Successfully addressing these components and making them work together separates highly effective websites from average and under-performing ones. The importance of user-focused design cannot be over-emphasized.

Historically, small and mid-sized business managers have been loath to make significant investments in the planning phases of Web projects, primarily due to a lack of understanding of the process. Now that many SMBs are on version two or three of their websites, they have a much better grasp of the principles involved in successful design—and the resulting benefits when those principles are followed. The concept of user-centered design is rarely a point of contention but sometimes the tasks required to accomplish it are misunderstood or overlooked.