Usability Techniques
User-Centered Design and Web Development

By Raļssa Katz-Haas
A summary of this article, Ten Guidelines for User-Centered Web Design was originally printed in Usability Interface, Vol 5, No. 1, July 1998

Table of Contents

What is User-Centered Design?

Usability Guidelines
Visual Design

How to Develop User-Centered Web Sites

Involve users from the beginning
Know your users
Analyze user tasks and goals
Don’t settle on a final direction too soon
Test for usability—repeatedly!
Learn More

What is User-Centered Design?

User Centered-Design (UCD) is a philosophy and a process. It is a philosophy that places the person (as opposed to the 'thing') at the center; it is a process that focuses on cognitive factors (such as perception, memory, learning, problem-solving, etc.) as they come into play during peoples' interactions with things.

UCD seeks to answer questions about users and their tasks and goals, then use the findings to drive development and design.

UCD seeks to answer questions such as:

UCD can improve the usability and usefulness of everything from "everyday things" (D. Norman) to software to information systems to processes. . . anything with which people interact. As such, User-Centered Design concerns itself with both usefulness and usability.


Usefulness relates to relevance; do the functions, information, etc., match what the user actually needs?


Usability relates to ease-of-use—a simple concept, but not always easy or intuitive to implement.

User-Centered Design cuts costs and increases user satisfaction and productivity.


Usability Guidelines

There are certain global usability principles, or guidelines. As they apply to web development, many of these guidelines can be summarized as follows:

Visibility helps users form correct mental models of the 'thing'—models that help users predict the effect(s) of their actions. Important elements (such as those that aid navigation) should be highly visible. Users should be able to tell at a glance what they can and cannot do.

Memory Load
The site should reduce user memory load. Screen elements should be meaningful and consistent across the site so users can recognize, instead of remember, what elements mean from one page to another. New items and functions should relate to ones the user already knows.

When a user performs an action, she should receive immediate feedback. For example, when the user clicks a button, something on the screen should change so the user knows the system has registered her action.

Users need to find information quickly and easily:

Most users don’t really read web pages. Users looking for their ‘nugget’ of information are more like hunters than like someone out for a leisurely stroll.

Web users often report feeling lost. There are several ways to help users orient themselves:

An error is an incorrect action by the user such as clicking the wrong link. It is important to minimize user errors and provide users with mechanisms that allow them to recover quickly from errors.

The site should be pleasant to use and look at. Users’ perception of ‘pleasantness’ influences their:

Text should be easy to read:


To foster clarity, use the following:

By its very nature, the Web crosses cultural and national boundaries. For this reason, it is best to be careful with ambiguity in the form of:

Visual Design

Visual design should be the user's ally. To this end,

How to Develop User-Centered Web Sites

1. Involve users from the beginning

Guidelines can provide general information about users and user/web interaction. However, that is not enough to make a particular site usable; it is critical to discover how your particular users interact with this particular site.

Involve users from the beginning by:

2. Know your users

Ask questions such as the following and use the answers to guide development and design decisions:

3. Analyze user tasks and goals

Observe and interact with users (preferably at their workspace) as you attempt to answer questions such as:

4. Don’t settle on a final direction too soon

Explore different designs and approaches and get user feedback before making final direction, development, and design decisions.

5. Test for usability—repeatedly!

Usability testing is an iterative process; it is important to conduct usability testing throughout the development cycle.

Usability testing can be conducted using elaborate labs and equipment or using relatively simple and inexpensive means. But usability testing is the only way you can know if this particular site meets these users’ needs.


6. Learn More

This document is only an introduction; a preliminary sketch. User-Centered Design draws from many disciplines such as Cognitive Psychology, Anthropology, Human-Computer Interaction, Visual and Graphic Arts, Communication, User-Interface Theory, Linguistics, Human-Factors, Information Design, Instructional Design, Color Theory, Typography, and more.

Read the research in these fields. Attend conferences and seminars. Consult with specialists. Join professional organizations. Observe people’s behavior with ‘things’.


Hackos, Joann T. and Redish, Janice. User Interface Task Analysis. John Wiley & Sons. 1998

Nielsen, Jacob. Usability Engineering. AP Professional. 1995

Rubin, Jeffrey. Handbook of Usability Testing. John Wiley & Sons, 1994

Sano, Darrell. Designing Large-scale Web Sites: A Visual Design Methodology. John Wiley and Sons. 1996

Scanlon, Spool, Snyder, and DeAngelo. Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide. User Interface Engineering. 1997

World Wide Web

Guide to Web Usability Resources, Usable Web:

Human-Computer Interaction, IBM

Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design, Jakob Nielson's Alertbox

Web Style Guide, Yale Center for Advanced Instructional Media

Additional References

Go to STC Society Web Site