Stakeholder-Centered Design

Its not just about the user



User-centered design is absolutely critical to the success of most, if not all, products. When superior affordance, intuitive interfaces and functionality that delights are combined, the result is usually a product with simple, easy user interactions and few, if any, use errors. But it’s not enough, especially when we consider high-value complex systems, where many different stakeholders must interact with the product successfully. If anyone in the chain has a poor experience, the success of your product is put at risk.

Only one of those stakeholders is the user.


When we buy a simple consumer product such as a smartphone, you can make the case that there is only one person deciding to purchase and use the product. Assuming the product functions the way the manufacturer wishes it to, it meets the normal business requirements necessary to make money, and is available to the desired markets, focusing on user-centered design could be enough.

However, consider the case of an MRI diagnostic system. Exactly who is the user? Is it the technician operating the system? Is it the poor frightened, claustrophobic, sensitive-to-noise, overweight patient? What about the people who install and maintain it? And don’t forget the person who approved the system’s purchase in the first place. Designing the MRI system with consideration for the needs of any one of these potential users is necessary but not sufficient. The other stakeholders must be considered as well.

For example, if we choose the technician-operator as the “user” and only consider that person’s needs, we might create a great product that is easy to operate but difficult to maintain and distressing to the patient. The result? Patients will refuse to be subjected to it and the machine will be offline much of the time because of how difficult it is to service. Obviously, this same issue will surface no matter whom you choose to be the “user”. This is not a recipe for success.

Stakeholder-Centered Design

So how do we avoid this conundrum? Here’s the solution:

We must change our thinking from merely “user-centered” to “stakeholder-centered”. Stakeholder-centered design considers all of the people, including intended and unintended users, who will interact with the product over its lifetime. Not just the person who uses it, and not just at the moment and location of use! Anyone in the chain of stakeholders whose needs are not appropriately addressed can potentially prevent your system from being acquired and used to its best advantage. You must therefore make sure you understand who these stakeholders are and address their needs to keep the chain intact. When you do so, the result will set your system on a path to success.

Stakeholder-Centered Design must start at the very beginning of your product development project. Use it to identify critical Success Drivers (the key items that will make or break the product in the eyes of its stakeholders) and inform the research activities that will determine the requirements your concepts and designs will be validated against.

Here are five steps you can take to get started with Stakeholder-Centered Design:

  • Step 1: Map the Product Lifecycle

    The Product Lifecycle consists of the sequence of steps your product takes from the point where potential purchasers are aware it exists until the well-used system is taken out of service and disposed of. The number of interesting steps will vary according to your product and market, but there are generally 5-10 important steps and they would typically include such items as the purchase process, acquiring the system, installing and bringing it online, using it, maintaining and updating it and end-of-life actions.

  • Step 2: Identify the Stakeholder List

    Once you have your Product Lifecycle steps identified, use it as inspiration to determine all of the types of people, including users, unintended users, and user groups, who will interact with it. Consider how the purchase decision is made and who makes it. Who installs it? Who operates it? Who maintains it? The key is to identify as many types of stakeholders as possible.

  • Step 3: Map the Stakeholders to the Product Lifecycle Steps.

    The next task is to create a User Workflow Diagram by mapping the stakeholders to the appropriate Product Lifecycle steps. Tip: remember that individual stakeholder types usually interact with the system in multiple Product Lifecycle steps.

  • Step 4: Identify the Important Stuff

    Now that you have all the steps of the Product Lifecycle identified and your User Workflow Diagram ready, you need to make sense of what you have. Not all stakeholders and Product Lifecycle steps are created equal. Try to identify and focus on the “top” items; specifically those that you believe can make a difference or simplify the Stakeholders’ experiences. (Tip: Make sure that you can impact your choices with design! ) Do not focus where you can’t change things, (think regulatory standards) or on items that have negligible overall impact. Look for the items that appear to be critical to the important stakeholders to begin creating the list of Success Drivers that will be used to validate your future product concepts. For medical products in particular, always keep in mind that your primary mission is to help achieve better clinical outcomes for the patient!

  • Step 5: Use the Important Stakeholders as the Research Targets

    One of the precepts of user-centered design is that you need input from the users to create the design. Stakeholder-Centered design is no different, other than you have more types of people to learn from. Do whatever is appropriate to gather that information so you can finalize and validate the Success Drivers that will make your new system a winner. Be sure to look for unintended users, update your User Workflow Diagram, and adjust your research activities as needed. This is an iterative process, and you should expect to uncover new questions that need answers as you go forward.


You can apply user-centered design principles to your system and still wonder why it fails in the market. Even though your product is great to use, if there is something about it that prevents the purchaser from buying it, you lose. If it’s hard to maintain, you lose. If it can’t be cost-effectively taken out of service when its useful life ends, you lose. But by paying attention to the entire stakeholder chain over the Product Lifecycle by applying Stakeholder-Centered Design principles, you will reduce risk, deliver a great solution, and not just win, but win big.


About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. M3 is a team of world-class designers and engineers that challenge convention to help their clients maximize business opportunities by creating exceptional products and experiences with them.

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