The User-Centered Approach: How We Got Here

Using Fidel's 2000 article, I explore how a user-centered approach could be applied to my work in web development, especially to the voter information site I hope someday to perfect.

Abstract: Fidel (2000) traces the history of the user-centered approach to system design, whose basic assumption is that systems should conform to the searching behavior of particular groups of users.

Rather than need or impact, user study research has focused on behavior patterns. These studies are characterized by being in the field – rather than laboratory; aspiring to understand non-users, as well as users; and being performed continuously to adapt to changing patterns.

Fidel explores the types of instruments applied in user studies – questionnaires, interviews, observation – through the lens of large-scale examples and summarizes the results of these studies. He argues that, although it is labor-intensive and requires in-depth analysis, observation is the best method for understanding the “why” of user behavior. Fidel concludes, however, that “a comprehensive and in-depth study always requires a combination of instruments.”


Fidel's summary of generalizable search patterns (see list below) is a marvelous set of usability standards to keep in mind when designing systems.  For each standard, I've included parenthetical notes about how I might try to use these insights in the design of a voter information portal.

  • easier to access information is king (direct links, for instance, are preferable to more generic source links)
  • people follow habitual patterns when seeking information (many people, for instance, are now trained in the Google method of one-box searching and the faceted search narrowing and comparison shopping allowed by many e-commerce sites)
  • people often don't know about information sources or how to use them (you can't just make a list of sources, you have to explain - or better - show how to use them, as well; and some people just want the synopsis and don't want to use the source at all)
  • first stop for information is usually face-to-face (so, urge the consulation with AUTHORITATIVE people as sources)
  • different types of people use different types of information (so, don't just focus on one type of source)
  • needed information varies across disciplines and groups (so, allow for all levels of knowledge and interest)
  • quantity of information sought varies (so provide both quick satisficing, as well as an option for more depth searching)
  • there's often more information than people can use (so filter, winnow, provide the very best)
  • people need different information at different stages in life, careers, and projects (so, allow for these levels and for people to BUILD on, keep track of, and share what they've learned in the earlier stages)

I appreciate Fidel’s acknowledgement of the extra work that observational methods entail. This is one of the main reasons I’ve done less user studies than I would have liked, despite the incredibly helpful returns. His insight that the best research uses multiple approaches is also true. When I followed my web card sorts and task analyses with short questionnaires and interviews, I gained much more insight into the real needs, assumptions and preferences of my users!

What I found most intriguing, however, is the finding of Tim Allen’s 1977 study that low-performing engineering teams used research literature heavily in the beginning, rather than later in a project.  I'll have to think about this in my own work!


Fidel, Raya. 2000. The user-centered approach: How we got here. In Saving the time of the library user through subject access innovation, ed. William J. Wheeler, 79-99. Champaign, IL: Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Available at: