Design Thinking and Human Centered Design - What's the Difference?

December 4, 2018
Andrew DiMeo

What is the difference between design thinking and human centered design?

It’s hard to ignore all the talk around human centered design (HCD) and design thinking these days. A quick google search of those terms, in quotes, reveals a combined 23 million results. Digging into those results, and the opinions on the topic might make your head spin.

The reality is, there’s no one answer. There are endless answers. And I’m OK with that.

Human Centered Design vs Design Thinking Cooking Friends
The most common explanation: Design thinking focuses on designing an object or process from scratch. Human Centered Design works to make an object or process that already exists (or is at least fully conceived) even better for users.

Each can be described as both a mindset and as a process. For the sake of this exploration we’re going to focus on mindset.

I’m writing this and Thanksgiving just passed; so it’s like saying, “What’s the difference between Stuffing and Dressing?” I’m not going to take you down a tour of the top recipes for each. There’s an infinite number of recipes (processes) to make great stuffing or great dressing. But rather, let’s talk about what they are. My position on that topic? Stuffing is cooked in the bird and dressing is cooked in a separate dish. I like them both.

In much the same way, there are many great processes (recipes) for HCD and for Design Thinking. If you ever had me in class, you likely saw my slide deck, “What is the Design Process?”— where you will have witnessed flipping through a few dozen slides on different design processes. We’re not going there. We are going to talk about whether or not it’s cooked in the bird or on the side.

Design thinking, as a mindset, ultimately enables creativity and outside the box solutions you might not otherwise have thought of. HCD puts the human perspective at the center of every step of the process (whatever that process may be).

Design Thinking Human Centered Design Stuffing Analogy

Who We Design For

Let’s say the process is to mass produce dressing (the kind you eat for Thanksgiving).

In this example, Design Thinking may be used to imagine an entirely new manufacturing process such as cooking stuffing in zero gravity to maximize fluffiness.  Meanwhile, HCD is focused on the human experience at every step of the process.

If this is our goal, then we care about the humans working in the production facility who are making, packaging, and shipping the dressing. We care about the people stocking the shelves at the grocery store. We care about the consumer who will be attracted to that brand of dressing on the shelves. We care about the people who occupy the environment in which that packaging is going to be disposed of. We care about the person preparing that dressing at home. And of course, we care about the person eating that dressing. We may care so much that we find out none of our stakeholders know what dressing is, so we call it stuffing. (My family is really going to love this part).

At the end of the day, Design Thinking is a mindset to identify unmet needs and conceive of many possible solutions, thus increasing your chances for mind blowing, light bulb flashing, innovative and iconic inventions.  The Design Process is taking that mindset, and putting a formula to it. There are many such formulas, each different, because the context to which that formula is applied may be different. Medical Device, Consumer Product, and Food & Beverage companies are likely not following the same Design Process to make their blood pressure monitors, TVs, and stuffing. But hopefully the process they are using has been built with the best practices of Design Thinking.

HCD emphasizes the human experience.  Similarly, there are many different HCD processes for different contexts, as the stakeholders (humans) are unique to the particular industry sector. As an example, in Medical Devices, we may be considering the Patients, Providers, and Payers as three of the critical stakeholders, a clearly different set as compared to those identified in the production of stuffing.

What are your thoughts on Design Thinking and HCD as mindsets and as processes? It’s a nuanced topic, so we would love to hear what you have to contribute to this exploration.

Be sure to check out my related article, Design Thinking and the Design Process

Andrew DiMeo
Innovation & Design Coach

Dr. Andrew DiMeo is a 20 year seasoned expert in the Biomedical Engineering industry. He is founder and former executive director of the NC Medical Device Organization, which became an NC Biotech Center of Innovation. He also co-founded and became VP of Business Development for the design and manufacturing company EG-Gilero.


Related Content

How Do Frameworks Improve Decision-making?
What is Human-Centered Design?