Watch Your Users: Thoughts on User-Centered Design

Image courtesy of


Have you ever actually watched someone using your interactive digital media design to perform tasks on their own device and in their own context? If you haven’t, you’re missing out on some of the most important, data driven insights you can gain from your users. These insights can help designers create better customer experiences, enhance brand reputation and can directly contribute to a company’s bottom line.


Ideally we might all wish that the intended users of our designs were comfortably seated in front of their large screen monitors with a fast processor and fast connection to the internet, or paying strict attention to their tablet or cellphone, all while they’re in a good mood and completely focused on your design. Unfortunately, the world provides few of these ideal moments.


Your users are probably not thinking about your design; they’re trying to get something done. They’re trying to check their email, look at a picture someone sent them or they might be trying to buy a vacuum from Amazon. They’re also most likely not completely focused on their task. They might be thinking of the bad day they had, they might be in a rush, they might be thinking about their upcoming vacation or they might be…; I think you see the point. The interactive experiences we design for our users are most likely used in the real word by real people. And watching these users in their real world environments trying to use your designs can be very illuminating.


Although getting user’s feedback in the form of surveys, understanding their demographics or having them talk aloud while walking through a design can be valuable information, what people “say’ they would do and what they say they “might’ do in the future are unreliable indicators of what they actually do. This type of observation in the context of User Centered Design is called Contextual Inquiry. While a user might tell you that they would most certainly click on the big red button to do something, while watching them you might discover that they actually click something completely different and might not even see the big red button. When you try to understand your users in this way you are much better able to create designs that match their mental model of what they expect your design to do. You will be able to incorporate your user’s perspective into your designs.


User Experience considers the entire ecosystem of a products life in the context of its use. For an interactive digital experience, we not only have to consider the aesthetic and technical, but also the psychological space where these elements are consumed.