User/person centred design

User Centred Design and Person Centred Design (with uppercase initials) are technical terms for methodologies involving specific methods and concepts.

What are these approaches, why are they so different from other approaches to design, and why do these names lead to confusion?

Most designers believe their designs are centred around the person who’ll use their product (the user in software design, or the person in education or medicine design). They therefore make the understandable assumption that their design is a user-centred or person-centred.

However, there are numerous different interpretations of who the user/person is, and of how to centre the design around them. (For brevity and clarity, we’ll refer only to users from here on unless there’s a need to distinguish between User Centred Design (UCD) and Person Centred Design (PCD).

Examples of a user include the person:

•buying the product

•using the product

•maintaining the product.

Examples of how to centre the design around them include:

•cost at point of sale

•lifetime cost of the product before it needs replacing


•ease of cleaning

•ease of use.

These are common and perfectly reasonable key features in design decisions. They are very different from design features which are important from the designer or producer’s viewpoint, but that may go against the interests of the user, such as:


•increasing market share

•winning design awards.


So, designing for the user can be very different from designing for the manufacturer or for the company that commissions the design.

Traditionally design for the user tended to be either market research-driven (people say they want X, and will pay money for it) or product-driven (we can produce X, and market it to people).

If you try to design something based on traditional market research, you risk running into a batch of unintended and unwanted outcomes because what people tell you they want is only part of the picture. The full picture includes what we call the Do/Don’t/Can’t/Won’t matrix:

•Do: What people do tell you (traditional market research methods).

•Don’t: What they don’t tell you, but would be happy to if they remembered it, or thought it was relevant (where you need methods such as think-aloud and laddering).

•Can’t: What they genuinely can’t put into words even if they wanted to (where you need methods such as observation).

•Won’t: What they won’t tell you for various reasons (where you need methods such as projective approaches).

User Centred Design and Person Centred Design tend to focus on two themes arising from these issues.

One theme is the usability of the product, particularly with regard to ease of learning to use the product, and ease of routine use. A major driving force for the improvement in ease of use is market competition. Companies such as Apple and Google demonstrated very clearly that better usability meant better sales.

A second theme prominent within the UCD process relates to the ‘can’t’ issue. Users often can’t say exactly what they want, but can immediately recognise something as exactly what they want once they see it. This often involves affordances – something that a product enables you to do. Often, affordances are unexpected and are discovered rather than planned. Methods such as upward laddering enable designers to elicit a description of what users want to be able to do; methods such as downward laddering, and idea generation techniques, help designers to create products that do what the users want.

The description above mainly focuses on products, but exactly the same issues apply to services such as education, health, and social care.

‘User centred’ and ‘person centred’ can mean very different things to different designers. But UCD and PCD have developed distinctive, rich suites of methods and concepts for designing products and services centred around what users/people want and need, with particular emphasis on identifying and using affordances. These methods and concepts are very different from those used in traditional design.