A Beginner’s Guide to User-Centred Design

Credit Boezeman

We’ve all experienced this particularly modern frustration — you go to the website of a certain service/product/media outlet with just one simple need, and ten minutes later you are still baffled about how to get this need met. The button is hidden away, it’s called something different, you have to enter your email address and date of birth to get it, or perhaps a full-bleed video advertising a car has opened up in front of the page. You bounce to another website, or type your search into Google.

This kind of thing happens when a digital product isn’t designed around user needs, but is instead built around what the stakeholders think users want, or what the business wants. User-centred design puts the needs of the end user first, which means testing ideas and processes out on real people from the very beginning of the creation process. A really great example of pioneering user-centred design is Gov.uk — their goal is to strip away anything getting between the user’s needs and their content and services. So for example, the bank holiday page now shows immediately what you might expect from visiting a page about bank holidays.

This type of design practise is enabled by agile working — testing hypotheses about your product and your users up front rather than after the product is built, continually iterating in response to this testing and research. It looks something like this:

Credit: SAP

Historically, this kind of working is a bit anomalous within traditional publishing. The book publishing process might be viewed more as a straight line, as in this attractive and over-simplified infographic:

An aficionado of user-centred design might look askance at the industry, criticising its reliance on gatekeepers to determine whether there is a “user need” for a particular book, the lack of minimum viable products, the marketing campaigns geared towards a small window of time, and the relative lack of data about how the audience uses the product.

Of course, this business model has allowed publishers to do what they do best for centuries — nurture talent, take risks and produce extraordinary books. There are just now plenty of new ways that this old model is adapting and disrupting, as we work with both our authors and readers to facilitate the magical service that is a good book.

As the internet changes how readers seek out entertainment and information, it also means we as producers and publishers have direct access to consumers at an unprecedented level. The modern publisher has a wealth of data, information and research at their fingertips. At a macro level, we gather data about user behaviour on our digital products through analytics. On a micro level, we reach out to real readers through our Consumer Insight team and talk to fans on our social channels.

All this means we can start using agile working practises and implementing user-centred design for our digital products. At Penguin Random House, we’re already creating digital products and experimenting with digital publishing — with unprintable books, short-form content and our portfolio of cookery, children’s and adult apps. Watch this space for updates as we continue to put the reader at the heart of what we do.