Human-Centered Design vs Design Thinking Process: Is There a Difference?

Human-Centered Design vs Design Thinking Process: Is There a Difference? cover

What’s the difference between human-centered design vs. design thinking? Are there any similarities? Which design approach should UX designers use during product development?

In this article, we’ll discuss the difference between the two, their similarities, and the steps of each approach.

Let’s dive right in.


  • Human-centered design (HCD) puts people at the center of every development process.
  • The main difference between human-centered and user-centered design is that the former designs for “humans” as a whole, whereas the latter breaks down the audience into segments and focused on granular issues.
  • Design thinking is an iterative problem-solving approach that involves applying design solutions, to solve problems.

Differences between human-centered design and design thinking:

  • Design thinking starts before product design, while human-centered design comes during and after product development.
  • While design thinking is more of a creative approach, human-centered design is based on real data.
  • Where design thinking encourages innovative solutions, the human-centered design prioritizes good usability and a great user experience.

Similarities between the two methods:

  • They’re both user-centric.
  • Both methods are driven by empathy.
  • Both methods are iterative.

How to build better products with a human-centered design approach:

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design (HCD) is a design approach that prioritizes user needs and experience above everything else. It incorporates user feedback, deep empathy for users, user sentiment, and user behavior into product development to design responsive products.

With this approach, UX designers and product teams are guided toward creating products that meet people’s needs and expectations.

Is human-centered design the same as user-centered design?

Nuances shouldn’t matter. The goal is most important.

“The challenge is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce positive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is successful, and that customers love. It can be done.” — Don Norman, “Grand Old Man of User Experience”

Usually, we define “human” and “user” as one word because they refer to the end-users. In UX design, however, there is a slight difference.

For instance, human-centered designs are based on human perspective, characteristics, and psychology. In this case, designers classify “humans” as one user.

In comparison, the user-centered design divides users into smaller segments to create user-friendly solutions.

For example, when designing a social media app, the human-centered design would focus on functionality and visuals. Meanwhile, the user-centered design would focus on customizing product features to cater to creators and other segments.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves understanding the full context of a problem, applying design solutions, and iterating until you get it right.

It’s about building products that are not only visually appealing, but also useful, intuitive, and compelling.

Human-centered design vs. design thinking

Although both human-centered design and design thinking focus on the end-user, they do this in slightly different ways.

The differences between human-centered design and design thinking can be found in the approaches taken to create solutions, the tools used, and the outcomes.

But ultimately both have empathy, problem-solving, iteration and collaboration at their core.

The difference between human-centered and design thinking.

Differences between design thinking and human-centered design

Here are some differences between the two:

  1. Time of use: design thinking begins at the early stage of product development. The human-centered design comes during and after product development, with the aim of fine-tuning the products into a solution that users love.
  2. Key Focus: Human-centered design monitors the emotional engagement of users, while design thinking combines this with the technicality and feasibility of the product.
  3. Level of clarity: design thinking is made up of assumptions, whereas human-centered design is based on real data from users.
  4. Aim: Where design thinking encourages innovative solutions, the human-centered design prioritizes good usability and a great user experience.
  5. Process: While the design thinking process is experimental, human-centered design makes decisions based on user feedback.

Similarities between design thinking and human-centered design

Here are the similarities between the two design processes:

  1. They’re both user-focused: both approaches have the user’s best interest at heart.
  2. Empathy: they’re driven by empathy for the user.
  3. Aim: the end goal is to create solutions that are usable, efficient, and engaging for the user.
  4. They’re both iterative: both methods use continuous A/B testing and usability testing to improve the product.
  5. Method: They use research, user testing, and feedback to guide designers when solving problems.
  6. Teams involved: Both methods involve collaboration between designers and users to ensure great output.

Is design thinking a human-centered approach?

Short answer, yes. Both design solutions follow the principles discussed below. Also, you can’t use either without listening to users’ feedback.

  1. User-centric approach: puts the end-user at the heart of the design with a real context of use in mind.
  2. Problem-solving: digs deep to uncover the user’s problems and recommends an appropriate solution.
  3. Systemized: works in an interconnected series.
  4. Iterative process: undergoes a continuous process of building, refining, and improving to satisfy user needs.

What are the 4 phases of the human-centered design process

There are four phases to carrying out human-centered design:

  1. Inspiration: At this stage, designers determine their ideal audience, observe their behavior, and identify a problem they need to solve.
  2. Ideation: Next, brainstorm ideas to solve the identified problems using various techniques like storyboarding, mind mapping, etc.
  3. Implementation: Next, translate ideas into actual designs. Create prototypes to test ideas before moving into production.
  4. Validation and testing: Conduct user testing at intervals to improve the product based on feedback from users.
The Human-Centered Design Process.

What are the 6 steps of the design thinking process?

There are six steps in the design thinking process:

  1. Empathize: Understand the users’ needs, goals, and expectations.
  2. Define: Identify the problem you want to solve by uncovering the user’s pain points and challenges.
  3. Ideate: Brainstorm multiple ideas for solving the identified problem.
  4. Prototype: Create prototypes of the proposed solution to test the product on users before production.
  5. Test: Test prototypes on real people and collect real data using usability testing. Adjust designs based on feedback from testing sessions.
  6. Implement: Bring the ideas to life through development.
Source: nngroup

How to build better products with a human-centered design approach

Use human-centered design to improve an existing product, enhance user experience, or gain a competitive edge. The goal is to understand users’ frustrations, identify friction points, and gauge their emotions when using your product.

In summary, human-centered design reveals happy paths, unhappy paths, good ux design, and bad ux design.

Here’s how to identify these design opportunities.

Segment users to gather feedback from specific cohorts

Dividing customers into user segments helps you understand how different people get value from your product. This granular feedback collection will help with more contextual insights.

For example, you can gather in-app feedback to know why one customer segment interacts with a feature and why others aren’t.

Collect user feedback on-demand from real users

Make it easy for users to give feedback when they want to. Don’t stress them. A simple feedback UI gives you access to relevant insights and helps you dig deep into what prompts users to leave feedback: frustration or delight.

Whichever it is, adding an always-on feedback widget lets you capture the best feedback. It also helps you create better solutions for users’ problems as well as understand what brings value to them.

The feedback widget on Miro is a perfect example. Miro embeds these widgets in multiple places to get contextual feedback.

Also, don’t go overboard when collecting feedback. Instead, collect granular feedback at different touchpoints. In this example below, the feedback feature appears when adding details to a card on your board.

Source: Miro

When you click on the emoji icon, a small survey appears.

Example of a feedback widget survey
Example of a feedback widget survey.

Validate ideas with fake door tests

Fake door testing is a technique for testing a product idea before it exists. This can be useful before you build a prototype, a new feature, or a product enhancement.

If in doubt, try a fake door test to confirm if users would want the product. Think of it as idea validation or a product experiment.

The best time to do this is before you build a prototype, so you don’t spend time building products that no one wants. Let’s say you’re considering a potential feature and you need to validate it.

How do you do that? It’s simple.

Launch an in-app prompt—a modal works great—to invite users and test new features. Based on how many people are interested, you can validate if the idea will bring value to the users or not.

Of course, you have to tell users this was a test. But you tested the desire and can use the opportunity to invite people to join a beta test participant waiting list.

This way, you build interest even before you build the product.

Note: Avoid doing these tests too often on the same user segment to avoid frustration.

Let’s take a look at an example to illustrate how it would look if Asana decided to perform a fake door test for their goal feature. Note that this example is purely fictional, and the images are for illustration purposes.

The first step would be to add the feature to the UI and attach a tooltip prompting action.

Create tooltips with Userpilot.

When users click on the button, tell them it’s a test and invite them to join a testing group. This way, you have customers ready to test and give feedback once you launch.

An example of a fake door test
An example of a fake door test.

Use A/B testing to always improve the user experience

Use A/B testing to test small changes and their direct impact on the end user’s experience. Test new features, welcome page design, happy paths, onboarding flows, and different feedback UI.

But don’t leave out smaller elements like the choice of button colors or in-app messaging. Also test for bad UX design to recognize friction points and remove unnecessary steps in a process, e.g., shortening the signup form.

For example, you could test if adding small tooltips could help users find their way around your product’s UI and enhance their first-time user experience.

The best thing is that it’s easy to set up A/B tests for in-app product experiences. Let me show you how we use Userpilot to test two user segments: Group A (Control) and Group B (Variant).

User segmentation in Userpilot.
User segmentation in Userpilot.

From our little experiment, you can see how one small change impacted the user experience. With this result, it’s easier to make an informed decision about what users like.

Userpilot makes it easy to conduct A/B testing for different user segments.
Userpilot makes it easy to conduct A/B testing for different user segments.


Though human-centered design and design thinking have a similar focus, they do so in different ways.

At the initial stages of product development, design thinking works okay. However, if you want to build an exceptional product, then embracing human-centered design is the way to go.

Want to build better human-centered products? Book a demo with Userpilot today and see how we can help you collect relevant feedback and test ideas!

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