Three Questions to Start a User-Centered Project

Kristin Zibell
The Startup
Published in
6 min readJan 16, 2020


A successful user experience gives two things to a user: feelings of success and joy. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. As designers, engineers, product managers, whatever your title, your responsibility to your users and throughout product design is this simple too.

But what about all those features and functionality that everyone is talking about? We have user stories already written,” your brain may wonder? But do you know where to start and whether or not they will help the user?

Our job is to serve users through a solution of form and function. We are the architects of the experience and must take that duty seriously. Why? Because if we don’t, then the only purpose we serve is to piss people off. And we don’t want to do that. Our users are smart people who want to live their lives and not deal with your aesthetic point of view manifested as a gray font that’s too light to read on any screen or your “cool” feature that blocks me from doing what I want.

How do we do that? A top-down approach with user-centered design is the answer. But… when I see articles like this about all UX deliverables, I get a little scared. That’s a LOT going on for a team to accomplish with limited budget and resources. Plus, who knows what new priority the VP may be throwing out next week? You need to ride the wave of getting good UX quickly and easily with a strong foundation of understanding what matters for the user.

So here’s how…

You ask these questions at the start of the project, and then you use the answers to guide a team design the first pass at the UX. Then, at each review throughout the project, you review the design and product based on how well it helps the user, getting it in front of them through rapid prototyping. It’s that simple. You will need an advocate for the user on your team, but in my opinion, everyone should be that advocate (this is the service part of your position).

Here’s the first big question:

Who is the user and what is their definition of success?

That’s it. Don’t believe me? Let’s try it together in a scenario I just went through yesterday morning. Perhaps you can relate. If you can’t, think of any item you’ve wanted to sell online.

I have a designer handbag that I don’t use. I want to sell it. My friend has told me about the RealReal as a great way to sell designer stuff.

Who’s the User?

The seller — A professional woman who wants to sell her designer handbag she doesn’t use anymore for the best price

You’ll notice here that the description of the user is one sentence. The words are not convoluted with lengthy stories of my demographics or artificial motivations. Ideally, you should already have an idea of who the user is at the macro level in your organization or some persona work already created. At this phase, I described the actor — me — in words that highlight that I perhaps have a level of technical proficiency and income that bring a picture of me to life for the team.

At this point in the design, you need to have a picture of the user, but what matters more is their motivation and task. The user description needs to answer the question, “how are they, and why are they going to use your product?”

How do they define success?

“I got it quickly — it was quick and easy for me to see how much money bags as mine sells for. I decided on whether or not I want to list it.”

“Once I made that decision, it was very easy for me to list my bag! I’m excited to see how much I get for it. Thank you!”

“My bag sold! For more than I expected! I get my money in about three days, which is great — this whole process was a lot simpler and easier than I expected.”

Success for the user is from the user’s point of view and language: I have found that over the years, it’s straightforward for team members — even the most technical — to switch their brain over the user’s point of view and speak as if they were them in this format. I have also found that it’s necessary to speak as if the user was saying it; otherwise, you get statements like “users want to optimize their healthcare activity” or “this user wants to leverage their resources to better their financial standing.” (Said no one ever, which help no one).

There are a lot of scenarios (use cases) coming out that you can flow out — I count five scenarios (use cases) just from these three success statements, and they are in order and context.

a. Search for an item and see prices

b. Register/sign up for the site

c. List and sell the item

d. Receive notifications on item status

e. Receive payment

Now that you have the vision for the user to get into two types of details by asking these follow up questions

What information and functionality do they need to achieve success?

The answers to this question bring up very quickly and easily what functionality and content the user requires to achieve success. It’s another way of saying what’s most important for the user in the design to accomplish their tasks.

For the first success statement of deciding whether or not to list my bag, I need a few things to do so:

Prices of bags like mine → find bags “like mine,” i.e., search and filter by brand, style, color, condition, and price

A clear description of how much money I will get if I sell my bag to decide whether or not it’s “worth it” to sell my bag

There’s an easy and secure process for selling my bag

I have a picture of what happens if my bag does not sell

What actions do they need to take to achieve success?

Answering this question identifies the users’ next steps and, more often than not, that translates into buttons. I wish it were cooler than that, but the web and digital products are transactional, they must promote and action. And for anyone who has sat through hours of meetings on what should a button be, this user-centered clarity will help greatly. If the design does not prompt action, then the user is left to their own devices to guess what to do next. Your design is their guide, help them by identifying the next steps for your users and translating that into a clear design (i.e., buttons).

Using my example of the RealReal, here are the precise actions that the design needs to accommodate for user success:

List the item

Status of selling my item

Get paid

The features, functionality, and content are now prioritized based on what will help the user most — it becomes evident what’s truly needed to help the user and what’s unnecessary. The content strategy also emerges from this list, precisely the right message at the right time.

You now have a hypothesis that you can validate with real users. Try a quick survey or an interview question with representative users — is this statement correct? What’s right about it, and what’s missing?

Start, design, and end by focusing on user success, and you have a method for making sure your product design helps versus harms. By answering three questions at the beginning, you have a strong foundation for successful user experiences. Think of the power — you are now an advocate and purveyor of joy!

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