User-Centered Development of Business Software

Issue 2, 2013 Download pdf


Globalization, highly dynamic markets, and the spread of internet and mobile devices increase the competitive pressure that software companies feel committed to address. Integrating a User-Centered Design (UCD) process in product development is the key to success.

Many vendors try to remain competitive by steadily increasing the performance and number of features available in their product. Therefore a lot of money is invested in rapid implementation of new features and functions that make applications more complex and confusing. Users are now often overwhelmed with all these options, become discouraged and frustrated. In the long run, this approach will not lead to success. So how can a product be sustainable, competitive and successful? What features and functions are needed?

The Key to Success 

The integration of the User-Centered Design process in product development is the key to success. In the UCD process, the individual user experience (UX) is the focus of development while the stakeholders’ objectives, expectations and ideas are simultaneously considered and equally important. This approach provides information about the potential users of the software, their requirements, pain points, (working) tasks, needs, behavior, context of use, and brand experience. 

By Using the UCD process, the minimum set of features a product must contain to satisfy users can be deduced. Also it becomes even clearer how the features must be implemented in order to ensure that the product is attractive and usable. Figure 1 summarizes the four areas that define the user experience: utility, usability, desirability and brand experience.

FIGURE 1: Definition of user experience

If a product creates a positive user experience beyond the necessary features and functions, it has greater value. For example, if the product has a short learning curve and high operating efficiency, it may be considered stronger than competitive products. Users will feel supported and motivated in their work. Trust in the brand image increases, over a longer period of use. As a result, the positive user experience increases users’ brand loyalty and the competitiveness of the product.  
Integrating the UCD process in product development is the best way to develop a user-oriented, competitive product.
For each product, it is important to go through the entire user-centered design process (based on the standardized UCD process of DIN EN ISO 9241-210) iteratively and with an individual approach. Both the scope and methods used in each phase needs to be adjusted for every individual project. 
Figure 2 describes the five phases of the UCD process: plan, research, design, implement and evaluate.

FIGURE 2: Phases of UCD process

PLAN Phase: Define Your Roadmap!

The starting point of the UCD-process is a design challenge. The challenge can either be a specific problem or an existing product that needs a user-centered revision. Typically a one to three day kick-off workshop is held to initiate the project. The project team which includes participants from business, development and user experience domains is invited to define the project objectives, scope, methods and timeline.
The end result of this phase is a roadmap that contains the timeline and resource planning (e.g., financial, temporary and personal) for the project. 


RESEARCH Phase: Know Your Users 

"Valid user data is the basis for any successful software product", explains Katharina Goering, Director of User Experience of Software AG's subsidiary itCampus. "You eliminate the uncertainties in the question of what needs to be developed, resulting in an efficient implementation. That means problem solving is only achieved with a very good understanding of the problem space.” 
Common methods like interviews, observations, questionnaires and focus groups can be used to identify users’ individual requirements, goals, tasks, pain points, needs, opinions and desires. Also, stakeholders provide important input through direct contact with potential users. 
The outcome of the research is analyzed and used to create personas and usage scenarios. A persona is a fictional person who represents the needs of one user group. The persona interacts with a product in a real context which can be visualized in form of a usage scenario. 
Personas and usage scenarios help stakeholders get into the minds of users, even if they were not directly involved in the research. The research phase builds the basis for actions and decisions in the following phases. They also prevent any adaptation and extension of design and implementation.


DESIGN Phase: Visualize Your Design Step By Step!

Based on the results of the research, design concepts are created. Each design concept considers device-specific rules, accessibility guidelines and location-based rules.
The design is normally created in three steps:
  • Define the information architecture
  • Create the interaction design 
  • Build the visual design
The information architecture can be represented as a sitemap which illustrates the linking between pages. Each page can be extended in content, functions, links and objects.  
The interaction design is based on the information architecture and presents the structure of the application with wireframes. Action sequences can be mapped in a series of wireframes or in a clickable prototype. The prototype provides a first impression of the workflow and the interactions inside the application. After completing the interaction design, a review with stakeholders is held in order to check the project feasibility and available budget. At this stage, changes to the design can still be made quickly and inexpensively. Figure 3 shows wireframes for a tablet application.

FIGURE 3: Interaction design in wireframes

Once the interaction design is finalized, the visual design is created. It combines the interaction design with the look and feel of the application in mockups. The visual design may use elements of the existing corporate design or the desired brand experience. Mockups are only created for a few pages because creation and modification is very time consuming. An example of mockups is shown in Figure 4.   

FIGURE 4: Visual design in mockups

IMPLEMENT Phase: Implement Your Design Step By Step

Implementation can start in parallel with the design phase. Developers obtain intermediate results like the information architecture and interaction design as well as all necessary assets like icons, buttons and images which are needed for implementation. A style guide provides additional assistance and ensures a consistent visual design, especially in the event that the application is extended later on. 
User experience professionals can support the whole implementation phase as needed (e.g., answer questions, complete reviews and make adjustments). Including these professionals ensures that the software solution takes into account all previously defined requirements.


EVALUATE Phase: Test Your Results!

The evaluation phase spans the entire UCD process. User-driven development can be achieved through the entire process with periodic inspections. Changes in user requirements can be identified and the usability of the application verified. Thereby necessary modifications can be made at an early stage. There are different methods that can be applied by user experience professionals and users. Common methods used by experts include cognitive walkthrough and heuristic evaluation. Common methods for users include usability tests with think aloud, card sorting, usability questionnaires and remote testing.
Outcomes are analyzed and rated with stakeholders according to their severity. Afterwards responsibilities, deadlines for correction and control mechanisms for the revised version are defined together.



User experience design convinces! The success of an application in today’s market is determined essentially by user acceptance. The integration of the UCD process into the development process is certainly possible if all stakeholders are willingly engaged. As a result, successful user acceptance of software products can be achieved even with relatively small changes.