Human centered design vs. Design thinking: an overview

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
June 30, 2023
A group of colleagues gathered around a conference table
Human centered design vs. Design thinking: an overview
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
June 30, 2023
Explore the differences and similarities between Design Thinking and Human Centered Design, then learn how you can apply them for better results.

Design is a critical component of many industries, from product design to software engineering and beyond. Human-centered design and design thinking are two approaches to problem solving that focus on the user — understanding their needs and creating meaningful solutions. 

In this article, we'll explore the differences and similarities between human-centered design and design thinking, as well as look at how they can be applied in various industries. We’ll also discuss how both approaches involve understanding the user experience, empathizing with them, and creating effective solutions.

Design thinking vs. human-centered design: What's the difference?

While not exactly the same, the concepts of design thinking and human-centered design have quite a bit of interplay. It's common for a design team to balance the two to end up with a product that's both useful and profitable.

Consider that they both inform product development, but each plays a distinct role in how the product comes about.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is an iterative problem-solving process that balances consumer needs and usability with technical capabilities. It typically follows five distinct stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. 

The goal of design thinking is to comprehend user preferences to resolve their issues. It encourages diverse thoughts to generate new ideas and challenge traditional assumptions in a creative manner.

A key characteristic of design thinking is that it’s an iterative process. That means product teams can rapidly move from idea formation through prototyping, feedback gathering, and refining until they solve the problem. Design teams use this iterative process as an instrument for establishing what works best for users before developing full products or services.

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is a product development methodology built to help create innovative solutions through empathy-driven design. To make it work, the focus should be on the human perspective: how they view the product, interact with it, find it useful or beautiful, or continue to engage with it over time. If possible, the way you design your product should support their goals, values, and motivations, too.

By maintaining this mission of deep empathy from ideation to launch, you have a better chance of creating something truly valuable for your end-user.

Understanding key differences

Let’s say you’re creating a time management app to help people manage their busy schedules — you might use design thinking to do market research, develop, and prototype. It may involve beta testing or real-user feedback, but it doesn't have to. 

Human-centered design may be present in your decision to add new features to your app (which would be based on the feedback you received from users about specific problems they face or their usage habits). It's done with the sole purpose of understanding your customer and meeting them where they are.

Goal: Direction vs. iteration

In the example of the app above, we mentioned that products and solutions are typically designed with customer needs in mind. Design thinking provides direction for new product development by establishing a framework for brainstorming solutions to user problems. A marketing team may sit and try to think of all the ways the app can help people, what issues they may run into, or what features could be added over time. Design thinking drives the car, so to speak.

Human-centered design, on the other hand, aims to improve the customer experience through updates. (Can we make this app faster or use less storage space?) Once the app is released or even while still in beta, new versions are released as needed. There's an acceptance of inevitable future iterations and knowing that design may truly never be completed as long as people's needs change.

Focus: Problem vs. feedback

There's another major difference in how design thinking and human-centered design works. While design thinking tries to anticipate what customers may want from their app (and then test user reception), it tends to be more problem-focused rather than user-focused. Designers put processes in place for when needs change or problems arise so that they can address these issues as they happen.

Human-centered design, however, takes the user experience into account at every angle. Practitioners continually seek out feedback from users to see how they interact with the app and if it's what they originally expected. Is the engagement seamless? Uplifting? Inspiring? Helpful? Just meeting a need isn't enough if it's not also a lovely experience. This is what human-centered design seeks to do from day one of the design meetings until the product is no longer offered for sale.

Related: Learn how to use co-design to design solutions with the end-user

Human-centered design and design thinking work together to improve the customer experience

If there seems like just enough overlap between these two ideas to not know which one you subscribe to, you don’t have to worry. Great designers try to incorporate both into their work, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.

Human-centered design can be used alongside design thinking, and it’s one that’s changing products (and people’s lives) for the better. By starting with a human-centered focus and testing solutions, HCD fits into every phase of the design thinking process. And, because it can be used to evaluate existing products, it continues the mission of human empathy, even after products are launched.

Design thinking tries to look at the big picture

When thinking back to the overall mission of a product, you’re likely embracing design thinking. Questions like “Who is this for?” and “What do we want to see?” fall in line with this overarching, thematic process for creating great products and services. Big and small design tweaks happen along the way, but form, function, and financial considerations may be held in equal esteem.

Related: Be sure to map your assumptions to evaluate the feasibility, viability, and desirability of your proposed solutions

If you’ve ever sat in a meeting where a stakeholder suggests, “Let’s make the buttons bigger!” or, “My mom would never use this without more pockets,” you’ve witnessed attempts to be more human-centric. Real people use your products and services. Putting yourself in their shoes and seeing how they interact with your designs every day means you’ll notice tiny opportunities to create better experiences — from good, to great. 

Human-centered design thinking in action

Whenever Apple makes a new update to deal with a security risk, it has likely involved design thinking. 

When it makes icons larger, more beautiful, and fun to tap, you are seeing the principles of human-centered design at work. 

Often, human-centered design doesn’t necessarily make the product functional, although it certainly can. The focus, however, is on what humans value, and whether your design is solving problems that support those values — even if they aren’t necessary to product function. 

Related: 4 great examples of human-centered design

Support human-centered design thinking with a visual platform

Whether you design a product, service, or internal framework, you'll be documenting your progress throughout the development process. 

Digital whiteboards and smart canvases offer a seamless way to jot down ideas and collaborate with others. That’s why they've become popular with people who value user-centered design within their larger design thinking mission.

The hardest part of any design can be getting started. That blank space can deter great ideas and make even confident designers a bit apprehensive. With Mural’s templates, you don't have to ever encounter a blank space. 

Templates can kickstart your creative process, help improve decision-making, and solve the problems your customers trust you to help them with faster (and better).

Get started with a Mural Free Forever account and check out Mural’s template library for every step of the design process. From ideation to incorporating customer feedback, Mural can get you started doing your best work in minutes.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.