Is Human Centred Design the same as Design Thinking?

A very interesting question was raised today in a Facebook service design group in which the following question was asked:

I’m new to UX Research and I would need your help to clarify something for me.

I imagine this question is often asked but: What is the difference between Design Thinking (DT) and Human-Centered Design (HCD)?

The line between those two is very blurry but I would say that HCD places the user at the center whereas for DT, instead of placing the user at the center like in HCD, DT brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.

I see a lot of people using Design Thinking and HCD interchangeably, which confuses me because if these 2 terms exist it is because they do not mean the same thing even though they are related.

Or did I get all wrong? Correct me if that’s the case.

I thought I would share my reply below:

Hi, this is a really interesting question and I understand why nowadays it can cause potential confusion or need for clarification. I started work in 1992 at BT Laboratories in their Human Factors department. In the early 90s there were very few HF teams based in commercial organisations, they were almost always in academic institutions.

A few colleagues and I were really focused on the question of how to take our philosophy and approach out from a research base and into the very commercial heart of business. So we created a process which we called “Designing the Customer Experience“. This to me is the essence of design thinking, the fact that at deep appreciation for the approach should not remain exclusively in research departments, but that it should have a central strategic and operational role.

So in 1996 we published a paper in the proceedings of CHI’96 which was designed to help our more academic peers understand what we were developing in a commercial context. I have republished the paper and this conclusion could have been written in the last year or so:

In response to rapid technological change and increased global competition, service industries have undergone radical change. These were initially focused on reducing cost and time to market, but more recently have concentrated on ways of understanding and anticipating customer needs. We have adopted an approach we call ‘designing the customer experience’. At its heart was a programme of research into human needs. By bringing together Marketing and Human Factors with more radical perspectives such as semiotics and anthropology, creative and visualisation skills, and rapid technological advances, we have generated an environment for user-centred innovation.

We express users’ abilities, needs and preferences from psychological and ergonomic perspectives, matched to demographic, lifestyle, economic and other marketing factors. Our approach takes a multi-perspective view of customers and users and provides clear roles for multiple disciplines to work together to deliver the competitive edge of usability.

We also published a second paper again on a similar theme of explaining to the Human Centred Design community what we were developing inside of BT: Working with Marketing

So to summarise, I see very little difference between Design Thinking and Human Centred Design. As you can see in the 1990s, the idea that design had a huge amount to offer executives and business leaders who did not have a design background was very much being developed and pursued by many different people and teams. Some like IDEO achieved global awareness, and other projects like our own achieved a great deal while not being so visible to the outside world.

I realise that some people may disagree, but when I look at the way in which both Human Centred Design and Design Thinking have been described, it is almost impossible to tell them apart. if you would wish to comment on this article and my thoughts, please feel free to do so in the comment section below.

Image credit: Wood-finished Telephone by Wild and Wolf

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