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Human Centered Design: user-centric despite limited Budgets and fixed Deadlines

In addition to our podcast, here comes the matching blog post on our HCD topic in fixed-price projects.

Budgets and deadlines are usually fixed, but it should also be user-centered – how can the Human Centered Design process (HCD) be used productively and efficiently despite these limitations? That is the topic we are addressing today.

What is UX and what is the difference to SW ergonomics? What is usability?

User Experience

“User experience” – or “UX” for short – describes the entirety of the experience that a user has when interacting with a product, software or service. This includes all aspects of interaction, from visual design and user-friendliness to accessibility and the emotions that users feel before, during and after use. The main goal is to ensure a positive user experience.


In contrast, “software ergonomics” or “usability” refers to the design of user interfaces during use. These should be efficient, effective and satisfying to use. That includes aspects such as the layout of user interfaces, the arrangement of control elements, the presentation of information and the interaction possibilities between users and the software.

The main difference between UX and usability lies in the scope of consideration. UX is more comprehensive and considers all points of contact between a user and software, a product or a service. It also includes emotional and aesthetic aspects of the user experience. However, both aspects, UX and usability, are closely linked and can influence each other.

Good usability is an essential part of a positive UX, as a well-designed user interface can improve user satisfaction. At the same time, a comprehensive UX consideration can also influence usability by taking into account other contexts and scenarios that lie outside the actual software but can still influence the user experience.

And as a metaphor: imagine you are in a restaurant. The user experience (UX) is like the overall experience, from entering the restaurant, the atmosphere to leaving the restaurant. It’s about how pleasant your visit is. Usability is like the quality of tables, chairs, cutlery and plates as well as the smooth flow of processes. If everything works well, your interaction will be more pleasant.

So what is the HCD?

HCD stands for “Human Centered Design”. It is a creative and iterative approach to designing software, products, services and systems that focuses on user-oriented activities. The aim is to develop user-centered products. HCD is also a standardized process in accordance with DIN EN ISO 9241-210 that enables joint planning and a definition of usability engineering measures.

HCD places particular emphasis on the active involvement of users throughout the design process to ensure that the solutions developed meet their needs and expectations. Thanks to the iterative approach, products and services can be continuously improved to ensure an optimal user experience.

And as a metaphor: the Human Centered Design process is like preparing an individual dish. Starting with knowledge of guest preferences (user research), you experiment with ingredients to find the optimal flavor (idea development and prototyping) before creating the perfect dish that hits the taste exactly (final design, adapted to the user’s needs). The process combines research, creativity and precision for a tailor-made culinary experience.

Optimal integration of human centered design in projects: Focus on user experience

The integration of Human Centered Design (HCD) into projects is invaluable for the development of user-friendly solutions. However, there are potential pitfalls to this approach, particularly in terms of budget overruns and schedule risks. We look at how HCD can be effectively integrated into projects to ensure an optimal user experience without straining financial and time resources.

Setting the course early on: customer consulting and user research

The key lies in sound customer advice at the start of the project about the need for an upstream user research phase. The integration of user research before the actual development creates a solid database for understanding the usage contexts and requirements. These are specific to each industry and cannot be taken from previous projects.

Similarly, the choice of methods is crucial, and low-fidelity approaches and qualitative remote methods should be considered. This not only enables cost-efficient data collection, but also helps to validate user needs early and more frequently. Nevertheless, on-site observation of users is always the best choice.

Experience regarding the challenges

In fixed-price projects, the challenge lies in identifying and overcoming potential risks and challenges. As a UX consultant, it is of great importance to understand the technical possibilities and limitations of software development. The balance between optimal user experience and technical feasibility often requires compromises. A crucial aspect here is the willingness to make compromises. In situations with limited resources, it is essential to identify the critical elements where an improved user experience will add the most value. Given the project budget, it may occasionally be necessary as a UX consultant to accept the 80% solution that is both user- and project-appropriate, as cost-effectiveness plays a significant role in the project compared to the arduous search for 100% perfection.

Cooperation in development

Close cooperation with the development team plays a central role here. Early integration into the development process enables hand-in-hand work in which the user perspective is taken into account right from the start. This collaborative approach helps to identify and resolve potential design problems at an early stage.

Communication is also a crucial factor in this process. As a UX consultant, it is important to communicate complex design concepts and ideas in a clear and understandable way. The use of visual aids and storytelling facilitates the explanation of design decisions and supports a convincing presentation of recommendations, not only to clients.

The scheduling of regular monitoring by the project manager or usability engineer ensures that the goals set remain in view. Iterations and tests are essential in order to move from a concept to a usable product. These enable a valid evaluation before the concepts move on to actual development. Too few tests are often planned here, but their efficiency reduces costs.

Communication, stakeholder management and flexibility

In agile contexts with numerous meetings, precise communication is essential. A competent project manager or proxy PO who keeps an eye on the communication channels is indispensable. Stakeholder management, active management of expectations and transparent communication in the event of changing requirements are fundamental to the success of the project or product. Accurate requirements documentation with explanatory design decisions offers the opportunity to track changes that have been incorporated via user and stakeholder feedback and explains the interaction patterns and visual elements used. For many customers, this is important information that needs to be presented in a comprehensible way.

Targeted project management despite uncertain requirements

Unclear estimates due to changing requirements are normal in project and product development. The key here is to align the project/product objective with the customer objective. Flexible methods can be used to adapt to changes while maintaining the focus on user satisfaction and achieving the set goals.

The importance of a good UX even with limited resources

Another lesson learned is to communicate a long-term vision. By clearly communicating the vision of an outstanding user experience and emphasizing the benefits of continuous improvement over time, you can emphasize the importance of good UX even with limited resources. A long-term perspective creates an understanding of the need to invest in user experience and encourages acceptance of achievable goals, even in environments with limited resources.

The optimal integration of Human Centered Design in projects therefore requires not only specialist knowledge in design and usability, but also skilful leadership (project manager/product owner or proxy PO, usability engineer), clear communication and the ability to adapt flexibly to changes. This is the only way to create a user-centered solution that not only meets the needs of users, but also stays within budget and on schedule.

And as a metaphor: integrating Human Centered Design into projects is like cooking a delicious dish. Facts from user research are the selected ingredients, the chef (usability engineer) and their colleagues combine them skillfully. Clear communication and documentation correspond to the recipe, flexibility corresponds to dealing with surprises and sometimes you may have to adapt the recipe or exchange ingredients (make compromises) in order to optimize the taste. This is the only way to create a culinary experience that meets the taste and stays within budget.

Synergies in UX development: In-house UX and agency in interaction

The dynamic between an in-house UX department and external agencies in the development of digital products is a tactically demanding but extremely rewarding challenge. In many cases, these teams are like two sides of the same coin – they complement each other, bringing different perspectives and creating a synergistic force. In the following we’ll be looking at the pros and cons of this interplay, as well as at best practices for optimizing the collaboration between in-house UX and agency.

In-house UX: A budget from the customer

What is in-house UX? In-house UX means that a company employs UX consultants and designers who develop products themselves or carry out projects for customers or their own company

In contrast to companies that outsource concept development to agencies, we, as an in-house UX, have a single financial pot (project management, conception, development) into which all costs must be integrated. Our concept budget is often lower than that of agencies, which is acceptable to us. These conditions result in tighter schedules, as we have a clear view of the financial scope available for implementing the concept.

The close connection between in-house UX and developers enables direct coordination on possible interactions. This eliminates the need to first create pixel-perfect keyscreens, as the development team is involved in the design process at an early stage. This familiarity with the skills and limitations of the developers is the result of many years of collaboration and saves time and makes implementation more efficient.

Collaboration between in-house UX and agency can be very enriching, as both groups bring different perspectives, experience and skills to the table.

The art of clear roles and responsibilities

In order to fully exploit the benefits of this collaboration, it is essential to clearly define roles and responsibilities. Each team member must know exactly what their tasks and responsibilities are and how they are integrated into the overall process. A clear delineation of roles prevents duplication of work and minimizes confusion.

Methods, vision and communication

The use of common working methods and tools ensures seamless collaboration. However, establishing a common vision and clear goals ensures that all team members are working towards the same result. This is an integral part of goal-oriented collaboration.

Clear and open communication and trust form the backbone of every successful collaboration. Regular meetings enable the exchange of ideas and the resolution of challenges. The use of project management tools facilitates access to information and promotes transparency. An open attitude to the exchange of resources and knowledge between in-house UX and the agency strengthens both sides. Written agreements regarding schedule, budget and workflows minimize misunderstandings and ensure smooth collaboration.

Joint learning and continuous improvement

Creating opportunities for joint learning promotes the development of both teams. Identifying strengths and weaknesses makes it possible to support and complement each other.

Overall, the effective collaboration between in-house UX and the agency shows that the strengths of both sides can be optimally utilized to develop an outstanding end product and provide a positive user experience. With a clear structure, clear role definitions and open communication, the challenges of this collaboration can be overcome and the benefits fully realized.

And as a metaphor: both chefs (agency and in-house UX), although different, work hand in hand to create a unique feast. They bring their own culinary talents, techniques and recipes to expand the flavor palette. The challenge is to take advantage of both teams while ensuring that the different elements blend into a harmonious culinary experience.

Empfehlungen für UX-Berater

Supporting and guiding software development within fixed budgets requires UX consultants to not only have in-depth expertise, but also a strategic approach to ensure an optimal user experience. Here are some recommendations that can promote success in this challenging environment.

Promoting a user-centric culture: A key point is to establish a user-centric mindset throughout the entire development team. This is not just about putting out small fires, but about focusing on customer-oriented consultations. Creating a culture that focuses on the needs of users not only leads to better products, but also to long-term success.

Flexibility and adaptability: In the dynamic world of software development, requirements and priorities are constantly changing. UX consultants should therefore be flexible and able to adapt to changing conditions without losing sight of the user perspective. The ability to react agilely to developments is crucial for success in fixed budgets.

Keeping an eye on the latest developments: The UX industry is constantly evolving and new technologies are influencing the design of user experiences. In order to provide effective advice, it is essential to stay up to date. Keeping up with the latest developments and best practices is essential to keep consulting at the highest level.

Promote training and further education: Investing in training and upskilling is an investment in UX design awareness across the organization. The more people understand the importance of good UX, the more likely it is that budgets for this area will be supported. Broad awareness helps to embed UX methodologies as an integral part of the development process.

Active membership of the German UPA: Membership of the German UPA is an effective way to network with the UX community. This not only offers numerous sources of information, but also exciting discussions in the working groups. Active participation promotes the exchange of best practices and enables an in-depth examination of current topics.

Pursuing the field of AI: A special focus on the field of artificial intelligence (AI) is highly relevant for UX consultants. The integration of AI offers numerous opportunities for more efficient and supported work in the UX area. Continuously monitoring developments in this area opens up opportunities for innovative solutions and optimized processes.

Implementing these recommendations requires not only technical excellence, but also strategic foresight. By promoting a user-centered culture, flexibility, continuous training and active networking, a UX consultant can make a significant contribution to the success of software development projects within fixed budgets.

The corresponding podcast can be found here.

Thanks to DALL-E 3 for generating suitable images of our metaphors.

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