Design process

Human-Centered Design vs Design Thinking - Major Differences And How To Use Them Together


min to read

13 Oct



Table of contents

Around a decade ago, business and scientific communities were inspired by the “Big Data” concept. Although it originated in the early 1990s, by 2010, thanks to the development of technologies, data analysis became popular as ever. It seemed it was only worth collecting as many statistics as possible, and there you have it - keys to answering all the questions are right in your pocket. That, however, has not happened.

A data-based approach in problem-solving has been criticized for lack of aptness. Researchers, for example, authors of the “You May Not Need Big Data After All” article, pointed out that plain data arrays lacked an essential thing - human creative thinking. It became clear that analytical thinking alone wasn’t enough in today’s ambiguous environment, so new approaches appeared in the arena. And in particular - design thinking.

Leading knowledge centers like IBM, Coursera, and Harvard Business School offer “Design Thinking” courses. This fact proves that the demand for creative reasoning techniques is considerable. Hard skills are no longer enough for market leaders companies like Google or Apple - they look for innovative people who can take effective solutions in the face of uncertainty and think out of the box.

Design thinking is usually accompanied by another creative methodology called “human-centered design”. Because we at Eleken use both approaches, we decided to deepen into what they have in common and what differs between them. After reading the article, you will not have any questions left regarding the “Human-Centered Design vs Design Thinking” subject.

What is design thinking?

There are two approaches you can use to solve problems or put opportunities into action. The first is the analytical approach. According to it, you should think about the known facts and perform an in-depth analysis of each of the problem's elements.

The second approach is the design thinking process. It implies that you should iterate creative techniques, such as brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and others, and strive to find non-obvious effective solutions. 

Design thinking is a process for creative problem-solving. It is a cornerstone for giving rise to innovative products and services. It allows us to resolve complex and tricky challenges and bring production quality and customer needs satisfaction to the very next level.

How companies can apply design thinking to solve problems

In business, the design thinking process gives rise to innovative goods and even entire companies. Let's consider several design thinking examples.

Up to the 2000s, immensely high costs for launching a kilogram of freight to space were a compelling obstacle for private companies willing to explore the Universe. When Elon Musk announced the ambitious desire to colonize Mars, he focused on the “How to reduce space transportation costs” issue rather than “How to partner with state-owned aerospace manufacturers”. Consequently, he established SpaceX - a company aimed to build reusable rockets and involve private funds in R&Ds. 

Here's another example of the power of design thinking in science. Over several decades one of the biggest challenges for NASA engineers was to safely land the Mars rover. Historically, rovers had 3 legs that often broke when they crashed into the planet's surface at speed. One of the NASA engineers, Mark Adler, looked at the issue with rovers from a different angle. He realized that the true problem was not the durability of rover legs but gravity, which caused a crushing hit during landing.

Adler's solution was brilliantly simple - to equip the Mars rover with air cushions that covered it like a cocoon, making it bounce off the surface up to 40 times before the final stop.

“Mars rover covered in air cushions”
“Mars rover covered in air cushions”

Design thinking isn’t an exclusive privilege for heavy industry. Ordinary things that we are used to, like a safety belt or a Heinz ketchup bottle, are great examples of what happens when a person asks “What if…?”.

Steps of design thinking

The idea around design thinking is to distance from “vertical” logic, the classic method in problem-solving, and move from a given towards new.

The process of design thinking
The process of design thinking

The design thinking process includes 5 steps:

  1. Identifying the root of a problem

Innovative solutions start with questioning what is generally known. The design thinking process implies that you respond to questions with counter-questions and proceed with the series until the answer beсomes apparent.

Instead of focusing on "how" to do something, you first need to understand "why" a particular issue occurs. If your goal is to create the ever-best booking app, start with "Why do people use booking apps at all?" and list assumptions.

People use booking apps to:

  • prices
  • ...find safe accommodation options
  • ...see photos made by other customers
  • other visitors reviews
  • travel tips
  • ...or - for all of the above.

For ideation purposes, you may use the following techniques:

  • brainstorming
  • polls
  • interviews
  • drawing on parallels
  • SCAMPER technique, and others.
  1. Reasoning alternatives

Distinguish less relevant ideas from essential ones, and elaborate the latter even more.

  1. Generating ideas

Concentrate on how you can satisfy the “root problem” the way your competitors can't. For example, if you think that the majority of users install booking apps to search for the cheapest accommodation offers, think about how you will meet the need from various perspectives.

To provide app users with the cheapest accommodation options, I can:

  • create convenient filtering options based on price
  • implement ranking systems to distinguish value-for-price rooms
  • partner with hotels to get exclusive discounts
  • create a special subscription plan for corporate users.
  1. Creating sketches or prototypes

All the great things are simple, but simplicity is often backed by hard work. One of the essential steps of design thinking is modeling. No matter how well-thought your ideas are, you can't see pitfalls without a sketch or physical prototype.

  1. Testing prototypes & adjusting the initial idea

Organize focus groups and ask participants to interact with a beta version of a product. Consider their feedback about the prototype before bringing the idea to mass production.

What is human-centered design (HCD)?

Human-centered design, or HCD, is an approach for developing products or services with the needs of real people in mind. The term is used concerning Design, but it becomes more and more accustomed among diverse businesses. 

The human-centered design suggests that companies will produce more valuable outcomes if they consider the context of users' problems, their motivations, and requirements for goods or services.

The implementation of human-centered design is beneficial for both parties. While users get higher quality goods and services, companies don’t rack their brains on how to create demand for what they’ve produced.

Human-centered design principles

Human-centered design isn’t just about creating innovative or offbeat things. It’s more about how to make production outcomes useful and, hence, marketable.

Below we listed 5 essential human-centered design principles:

  1. Not being a “desk explorer”

Know what your customers love and leave - get in touch with them via social media, see what content they share and what attracts their attention, collect opinions with polls, create buyer persona profiles, and so on.

  1. Keeping an open mind

The human-centered design is against any clichés and prejudgements. Always start investigating the problem with a clean slate and don’t be afraid to ask naive questions.

  1. Considering different perspectives

Don't be hung up on your ideal customer profile - consider opinions regarding desirable product characteristics from different users.

  1. Designing the entire journey of the product

What will the user do with the product after the expiration date or in case it breaks? The human-centered design places convenience at the heart of planning and development processes, so you should foresee different use-cases regarding the product and make them as trouble-free as possible.

  1. Creating prototypes and testing them in a real environment

The more you test your product on real users, the better the outcome will be. The human-centered design approach supposes making trial runs, so you can’t do without drawings, mock-ups, and prototypes.

You can also learn about psychology in UX design to better understand how human behavior impacts user experience and use this knowledge to develop more apt products.

How companies can achieve better business results with human-centered design

Business is much about the “Penny saved is a penny earned” saying. So, it may seem that spending extra money on creative techniques, like ideation or one-on-one interviews with customers, isn’t worth the hustle. But the truth is - human-centered design principles allow companies to accumulate unique deep knowledge about their clients and create products that speak for themselves.

Any business challenge, like decreased conversions or market shares, can be analyzed from the human perspective. Consequently, a company may come up with more effective solutions than if it was trying to solve the problem, relying on its picture of the world.

Human-centered design can contribute a lot to resolving business problems
Human-centered design can contribute a lot to resolving business problems

A great example of human-centered design implementation is Amazon. Everyone knows the company as a pioneer in online retail, but back in 1995, when it had started, online shopping was not as convenient and enjoyable as we know it today. Although Ecommerce websites were considered revolutionary at that time, from today's perspective, it hurts just looking at them.

This is how looked like back in 1995

Amazon aimed to become a market leader, so it followed technologies and invested in innovations - to make the online shopping experience more convenient for users. They were the first to allow posting user reviews and implemented a “1-click ordering” option. Just 3 years after launch, they were already using a left sidebar and tabs - to ease navigation across the website and stimulate purchases.

And this is how looked like 3 years after the launch, in 1998
And this is how looked like 3 years after the launch, in 1998

Jeff Bezos once said: “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” This quote is, perhaps, the creed of the Amazon. And - a brief explanation of the importance of the human-centered design process for companies.

Design thinking vs HCD - mind the difference

“Design thinking” and “human-centered design” are often referred to as synonyms, and for a reason. Both approaches represent a creative way of solving problems or implementing opportunities.

Definitions of the two terms overlay significantly, but not wholly. The difference between design thinking and human-centered design lies in headlining priorities:

  • the core idea of the design thinking process is to come up with a non-obvious effective solution
  • the core idea of human-centered design is to bring the highest possible value to users.

A company can use design thinking principles to create something innovative. And combined with a human-centered design approach, it can assure that the innovation is beneficial for users. The two approaches work in synergy and allow a company to satisfy customer needs better and, hence, stay competitive in the long term.

How should you combine design thinking with human-centered design phases?

You can easily combine two approaches into a multi-purpose and straightforward “loop”:

  1. Start with in-depth learning of users' unsatisfied needs, motives, and behavioral patterns.
  2. List as many possible solutions to the identified “gaps” as you can, no matter how strange or obvious they seem
  3. Shortlist ideas or possible solutions by diverging and converging them
  4. Ideate different use cases
  5. Create prototypes and test them on real users
  6. Adjust the idea or solution according to users’ feedback.
Combine two approaches to implement more effective solutions
Combine two approaches to implement more effective solutions

No matter what exactly you do - develop a new application or try to boost your business growth - you can alter design thinking with a human-centered design approach and get a double or triple effect on efforts spent.

Wrapping up

Human-centered design and design thinking aren’t conflicting notions, so there’s nothing wrong with using them as synonyms colloquially. Still, you should remember the two terms slightly differ in underlining the key outcome of the creative thinking process. 

While design thinking emphasizes the importance of an unconventional course to create something innovative, the human-centered design puts the user’s comfort at the core. And when two approaches are combined, they become a creative thinking combo.

Bu the way, if you want to learn more about the applied use of design thinking, you can read our other article on  “Design Thinking & Minimum Viable Product”.

Writer at Eleken