Spur Innovation with User-Centered Design

User-centered design (UCD) may seem like a concept reserved for engineering students or big-time companies, but it's actually a core principle with applications in the K–12 classroom and small business.

"Design is figuring out how someone interacts with a product, service or experience," explains entrepreneur Raj Valli, founder and CEO of Tabtor in Kendall Park, NJ. "User-centered design puts the users at the core, or top, of that process - using them to guide the decisions you make, rather than making design decisions based on your own beliefs, preferences or what seems to make sense."

Here are some examples of UCD in action:

  1. OXO Good Grips™. These products are designed to be easily used by people of all ages and abilities. The products' padded extra-large handles make items like vegetable graters and garden trowels easier to grip, especially for people with arthritis and other conditions that affect manual strength. The entire line was developed using the principles of Universal Design, a form of UCD that focuses on usability for the largest number of people.
  2. Portable desk. Students participating in Staples' Designed by Students program created a better lap desk with storage inside for notebooks and supplies, and a handle for easy carrying. Portability was important because "Students said, ‘We do homework whenever, wherever - like in the car on the way to baseball practice,'" explains Daniel Reilly, Staples' director of design and innovation, who oversaw the program. "It also has a wire routing for headphones, because I think 75 percent of the kids told us they listen to music to focus."
  3. iRobot® Roomba®. iRobot was founded to bring "practical robots" to the masses to handle tedious chores and other household tasks we all loathe. Its best-known product is the Roomba self-propelled sweeper. The firm also makes a hard-surface cleaner, the Braava, as well as products for use in defense and surveillance.
  4. Kelley Weaver was sick of juggling her phone, ID and credit cards, and she noticed that her friends were, too. Based on their collective experience and frustration, she designed Pursecase, a small and stylish carrier just large enough for the essentials.

Regardless of whether you or your students are inventing a new device or process, focusing on what customers or users want and need is a valuable skill to develop.

User-centered design in the classroom

"We see design as a vessel to teach real-life solutions to real-life problems," explains Rinat Aruh, co-founder of New York–based design and brand agency, aruliden, which partnered with Staples on the Designed by Students program. "Design thinking is a skill that can be extremely beneficial for students to get exposed to early on as it can assist not only in the classroom but, more importantly, in real life. We exposed the students to how products actually get made...giving them an experience of a true maker culture and teaching them to approach solutions by doing versus assuming."

Project-based learning is one of the best ways to bring UCD to the classroom. Challenge students to create something nobody even knows they need. Provide a history lesson on the days when a Princess phone was considered a major innovation - and how few dared to consider the possibility of a phone that fits in your pocket. Or borrow a page from the Designed by Students program and ask kids to improve products they use every day like backpacks, water bottles or pencil sharpeners. "Have them question why it is designed that way," Valli suggests. "Then task them with coming up with ways to make it better. If the design hasn't changed for 20 years, why is that the case? Is there an app to do these things better? Have students connect with each other, elaborate on ideas, ask questions and make presentations to the rest of the class."

User-centered design in your small business

Shifting to a UCD philosophy helps business owners uncover opportunities. Reilly says talking directly to students was critical. "They opened our eyes to the fact that we are not meeting their needs the best we can." This in turn helped the team see how they could do better.

That's critical feedback every business owner needs. To get started gathering your own customer insights, Val Wright, an innovation and leadership expert in South Pasadena, CA, suggests you:

  • Ask your best customers how they use your products and services
  • Ask regular customers to describe how their lives or business will grow and change in the next two years
  • Give these customers an early chance to review and test and give feedback on new products and services

This may seem like extra work, but Wright says there's a serious downside to not centering your business on customers' and users' needs and wants: extinction.

"Seriously," she says, "no business can survive, or unleash its full potential, if its primary focus isn't providing compelling and unique value to its customers."

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