Hello and welcome to Buzzword Town. Today we are talking about user-centered design. What is it? Is it a bunch of sticky notes arranged on a white board? Is it wireframe printouts with string connecting them? And what does it all have to do with human-centered design? Help!

close up of a hand working at a whiteboard
Photo by Alvaro Reyes

In my opinion, a problem that holds some User Experience (UX) professionals back a bit is that we have a lot of terminology arguments.

In general, though, a lot of terms are sort of interchangeable to get your point across. If you’re new to the field, don’t worry too much about getting things a little wrong. We need you thinking critically and doing research — that’s the important stuff!

Let’s look at two terms: user-centered design and human-centered design.

What is user-centered design?

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, user-centered design is “an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.”

The point of user-centered design (UCD) is to incorporate user research and user feedback throughout the design process. Ideally, designs are truly based on user needs and wants.

The Interaction Design Foundation’s image describing user-centered design.

In the past — and sometimes currently, if we’re honest — the design and development processes were not user-focused. Perhaps usability testing would be done at the end, but it would be too late to iterate and make major improvements. Instead, companies built what they decided to build, and people had to learn to use it — no matter how bad it was. Or, the product would fail when a better competitor came along.

As you can see, user experience methods fit with a UCD framework. You strategize and plan when and how to do user research throughout the design process, from ideation to the final product. In fact, the product may never truly be final but instead may be constantly improving based on continued research insights.

(If only this were always magically the case, and the budgets flowed like rivers!)

And so, the simple answer to our question du jour: UCD is a design framework for understanding, specifying, and evaluating a design against user needs. Yay! Also, UX methods fit within that framework and support it. Yay!

But it can also get a little more complicated.

What is human-centered design?

Oh, boy! Well, in general, I’ll remind you that you can probably use either user- or human-centered design terminology and nobody will get mad or offended.

But to get more specific, user-centered design comes from a larger idea of human-centered design, which has its own ISO standard. In the field of Human Factors (which is one historical origin of the field of UX), professionals like me design products based on a combination of user abilities, tasks, and environments.

Human-centered design for pilots encompasses more disciplines than user-centered design for an everyday web app. Photo by Jan’s Archive

So, compared to UCD, HCD may encompass more about the users’ abilities, like human perception, cognition, and decision making — often specifically in the context of designing for experts like pilots or surgeons. This HCD framework might also include aspects of human ergonomics, physiology, or sociology which go beyond what many UX researchers examine.

…and beyond?

In the past few years, many of us have critically considered whether UCD (or HCD) is enough. As conscious, ethical practitioners, we also need to be thinking about how design impacts everyone, not just immediate users of the product or service.

We need to thoroughly understand the impact of our designs on society, on marginalized folks, and on the natural environment. We are facing a time, much like Ken Garland warned about as a manifesto in the 1960s, when we should consider how we can re-focus design on the betterment of humans as a whole.

Do you consider what happens to a product after it’s designed and used? Photo by Andrei Ciobanu

I realize that considering so many big questions is a big task — but we have to try. Our responsibility is to advocate for users, but also, perhaps, sometimes, we are the ones to push for ethics.

In the end, I don’t mind which words you use when you’re talking about the work, as long as you are doing the work.

Bonus: Other terms to know

Design Thinking is an approach to solving problems with design popularized by the company IDEO. One big idea from this philosophy is that non-designers can also practice design thinking, which can include a lot of different activities and frameworks for team-based collaboration.

Systems Thinking is another approach to solving problems, with an understanding that changing one part of a system affects other connected parts and that complex problems require input from multiple perspectives.

An agile process in development refers to a strategy of creating incremental improvements in a product over small periods of time, called “sprints.” Elizabeth Chesters recently wrote about how UCD mixes with agile.