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In user-centred design, context is everything

User-centred design (UCD) is defined as "An iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process."

It's a way of thinking and working that helps us create products that people don't just use, but that they enjoy using because they solve real problems in a meaningful way. There are a number of core principles in UCD. Some of the most important ones are:

  1. Know your customer/user, and don't make assumptions about them.
  2. Understand what tasks they need to perform and what's required of them.
  3. Gather feedback from your users and use it to inform design decisions.
  4. Take into consideration their environment/context when making decisions.

This blog was prompted by something that I recently experienced in an airport. Time and time again we see the right ideas being implemented in the wrong way due to lack of consideration for the latter of the principles above.

Will and Nick working through a user testing scenario.


On my way out of a bathroom I noticed a tablet embedded into the wall. It was there to gather feedback via a simple three-point voting system.

How satisfied were you with the cleanliness of this bathroom?

😟 Not satisfied     🙂 Satisfied     😁 Very satisfied

Taken at face value, this is great. You can almost hear the applause from the meeting room where the idea for implementing real-time customer feedback was pitched. The airport can gather real-time data on the condition of their facilities allowing them to respond to issues and ensure cleanliness is maintained to a high and consistant standard. It also shows to a certain degree that they care about what their customers think, and want to provide the best service possible.

There was something bothering me about this "solution".

Who on earth wants to use a touchscreen on their way out of a public toilet!?

I found myself in a dilemma, I do want to leave feedback—it's helpful and I'm glad they're asking—but do I want to run the gauntlet? Dare I interact with that touchscreen? Would anyone? Probably not, but I commend the daredevils who did. Too many times I have witnessed people leaving public bathrooms without washing their hands to willingly place my vote.

Though this is a somewhat anecdotal example, it got me thinking. Far too often, ideas are formed and implemented that work perfectly well when tested in a boardroom. But it's not until they are put to the test in the real world, in their real context, that they are proven to be a success or not. In this particular example, the voting system might have worked really well and passed user testing if volunteers had been brought into a meeting room and asked to test the chosen solution. Once placed into the real world though, in its real context, the touchscreen voting system loses its charm as the hygiene factor kicks in.

The moral of the story

When designing products or services, the context in which they are going to be used and how it will be used is just as important a consideration as who is going to be using it.

Also, wash your hands. 🚽


Read more about our user testing service, Kyan Labs

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Previously from our Product Design Team:

Streamlining our design systems documentation with Storybook by Helen McCarthy
Learning through listening: some of my favourite design podcasts by Will Poole
Meet the Kyan Design Sprint team by Kyan
Design tools that we're excited about for 2019 by the Design Team
Image optimisation techniques for web by Helen McCarthy