Keeping the user in the centre of the design process

The goal is to create a revolutionary product that monitors the child’s progress and personalised interaction


Every day we use hundreds of different applications, objects and various forms of systems. Inadvertently, we always tend to find some of them which do not work as expected. The reason for this is simple when the design engineers developed the artefact, they did not give much weight to the user’s feedback. Let’s not forget that whoever creates a product does so with a whole baggage of experience and assumptions. But the final user usually does not possess the same knowledge. Because of this, there’s a chasm between the designer’s ideas and what the user expects. Thus, it is essential to keep the user at the centre of the design process whenever we create something new.

This approach is typically referred to as User-Centric Design (UCD). It is an approach that focuses on the needs of the user from the very beginning. So the users’ needs are not an afterthought that we insert at a later stage but are engineered directly within the product. This approach differs from the traditional way of developing products, which typically prioritises the technical or business perspective. While such a conventional process would make sense on paper, in practice, it would fail because it does not satisfy the users’ needs. Let me illustrate this with the Automated Teller Machine (ATM) example.

When banks introduced ATMs as a form of self-service machines for users to perform banking operations, they noticed a problem with the system. A user would insert his Credit Card inside the device, type the PIN code, press the button to withdraw money and leave with the money whilst forgetting the card in the machine. The problem occurred because they did not follow a UCD approach.

If they did, they would have realised that when a person uses an ATM to withdraw money, his intent is simply that. So he gets closure when he has money in his hands and not when he takes the credit card back. After realising this fact, they solved the problem by simply reversing the order of the last operation. A user would insert his Credit Card inside the device, type the PIN code, press the button to withdraw money, get the Credit Card back and receive the money. In so doing, he achieved closure because he went there to get some cash and got it.

UCD satisfies the user’s needs before balancing the technical and business requirements. The advantages of such an approach are various:

  • When the user is involved in the design loop, products are more likely to meet users’ expectations and requirements. It eventually leads to increased sales because users enjoy the product, lower the costs incurred by customer services and obtain a higher usage rate.
  • Since the product is tailor-made for the users’ needs and in specific contexts, it automatically reduces situations with a high risk of human errors, thus making the product safer.
  • A more profound sense of empathy emerges by reducing the chasm between designers and users. This approach is essential in creating ethical designs that respect privacy and the quality of life.
  • When the focus is on the users of a product, designers can recognise the diversity of cultures and human values, thus helping them create sustainable businesses.

However, UCD comes with its challenges as well.

  • Not all companies are ready to integrate UCD within their processes. The reason is that keeping the user in the loop involves more time and effort.

Some processes may be old, and integrating such changes might prove to be very difficult, primarily due to the resistance to change exhibited by some of the employees. So, gaining buy-in from all the organisational structures might be challenging but necessary.

An excellent example of how UCD is employed is the SMARTCLAP project, launched in 2020 by the University of Malta (UM) in collaboration with Invent3D ltd and Humain ltd. SMARTCLAP is an intelligent user-centred product-service system for evaluating and developing functional hand skills in children with Cerebral Palsy. The project, led by Prof. Ing. Philip Farrugia from the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, UM, is funded by the Malta Council for Science and Technology (project reference R&I-2019-003-T).

It uses UCD to understand the basic needs of these children. The goal is to create a revolutionary product that monitors the child’s progress and personalised interaction. To ensure that the product satisfies the users’ needs, the consortium organised three focus groups with different children at the start of the project to identify the requirements for the device. The sessions also included Occupational Therapists, guardians of children with cerebral palsy, and industrial stakeholders. Furthermore, following these sessions, they generated different persona to design the device accordingly. A persona is a fictitious character based upon the research performed to represent the features of the various users participating in the study. After the first design iteration, they conducted another focus group, during which the members suggested some further design changes. The process is iterative and repeats as many times as needed.

The UCD process is an essential tool for projects reliant upon user adoption for success, such as SMARTCLAP. When a project team is dedicated to serving the user’s needs, they often develop a far better solution since they focus on a clear direction throughout the project life-cycle. More details about the project are available at

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