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Clarifying human-centered design thinking once and for all

UX design and product management can be a real pot of alphabet soup. Just when you thought you’d untangled all the terms, processes, and acronyms, you hear a word used in a new way.

If you've heard of 'human-centered design', you might wonder: how is it different from—or similar to—'design thinking'? And how can I apply it to product development?

Last updated

29 Apr 2022
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Human-centered design (HCD) thinking is a useful workflow for product teams, and this guide unpacks HCD and design thinking so you can make informed product decisions and finally sort out these concepts.

Put people at the center of your decision-making

Hotjar makes it easy to get product experience insights that tell you exactly how users feel—no more guessing and hoping for the best.

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design (HCD) is the process of integrating user feedback and preferences into every step of product creation and design. Centers of Excellence further explain that HCD encourages designers to define and solve problems from the end-user's perspective.  

While empathy for users is a worthwhile skill for product managers and designers, human-centered design impacts your business, too: the more aligned your product is to user preferences and needs, the better your activation, conversion, and experience metrics will be.

How implementing user feedback helped Turum-burum increase Intertop’s conversion rate by 55%

Digital UX agency Turum-burum made changes to Ukraine-based shoe retailer Intertop’s checkout process that led to impressive growth. They didn’t hit a 55% increase in conversions through guessing, though: the team used a human-centered design approach (and Hotjar) to discover what was wrong with the checkout process.

Smart experiments driven by user feedback helped them roll out successful variants.  

Learn more about how Turum-burum boosted Average Revenue Per User in the customer story here.

Analysis and experimentation help Turum-burum make informed design decisions 

Human-centered design vs design thinking

So, how is human-centered design different from (and similar to) design thinking?

While human-centered design is a process to incorporate user needs and feedback throughout the development process, design thinking combines user needs with the feasibility and viability of creating the product to those specs. 

Let’s unpack the differences and similarities between design thinking and human-centered design.

Differences

Human-centered design and design thinking have some overlapping perspectives (which we’ll explore in a bit), but you use each method at different times. 

Design thinking determines your direction when you work on something new, and human-centered design fine-tunes the details through iteration after it is in the users’ hands. 

For example, you would:

  1. Use design thinking methods to learn about users' goals and needs, and develop a creative solution to solve a problem for them—leading to the first version, or prototype, of a new feature or product. 

  2. Then, once users interact with it, you would use HCD to gather feedback about how using the product feels to them, so you can improve the user and product experience. 

Another key difference between the strategies is that design thinking focuses on unmet needs, while HCD focuses on the human experience.

Remember when we mentioned that design thinking considers feasibility and viability? Design thinking is a process to consider all variables, both within the company and user base, to determine if a solution is worth exploring. Then, human-centered design helps your team make the best possible version. 

Similarities 

Empathy is at the heart of both HCD and design thinking.

InVision lists user-centricity as a core principle of design thinking—and it’s literally in the name of human-centered design. You can’t use either strategy without hearing (or seeing) directly from users

The two methods are also both iterative processes. While the exact steps and when you complete them vary, they're both an ongoing strategy for product experimentation. Since your product and user base are always evolving, people-first design strategies are ongoing, too.

Learn directly from users

User surveys are a great way to gather actionable feedback and information. If you aren’t sure what to ask, don’t sweat it. We have survey templates for product research, product feedback, market research, and more. 

Set up a survey in minutes with these templates.

#Hotjar has nearly 30 ready-to-use survey templates

Hotjar has nearly 30 ready-to-use survey templates

Human-centered design pitfalls

When using a human-centered design approach, keep in mind:

  1. Measuring progress during quick changes and iterations can be tricky, so set clear expectations about the process and when you'll see results.

  2. Decide how closely you'll follow user wishes; short-sighted preferences can get in the way of long-term product evolution. A clear product strategy can help you find alignment between user wants and company direction.

  3. You should expect to create multiple iterations of a product, which makes the approach best-suited for agile product and design teams

Design thinking pitfalls

When using design thinking, be aware that the process won’t look the same for every project. Instead of a linear checklist, design thinking is a dynamic and ongoing process that changes as you learn.

Within design thinking, you might find that the hypothesis you thought was true is not what your users are looking for. Then you need to take what you learned, go back, test, and iterate again.

Martina Tranström
a Product Design Lead at Hotjar

How to choose between human-centered design and design thinking

Since HCD and design thinking share similar outlooks and processes, it can be hard to know when to use each approach. Let’s break down some scenarios where each strategy applies. 

When to use the human-centered design approach 

Human-centered design is practical when improving or adding to an existing product. For example, when you’re already serving a user segment but want to improve their experience. During the process, you would think about user workflows and frustrations, plus how it feels to use the product. Ask questions like “how can we make this task easier?” and “where are opportunities for customer delight?”

To learn about how users interact with a product, you can leverage human-centered design by:

  • Using a heatmap to see where people interact on split-testing pages so you can move forward with a winning design

  • Watching user interaction recordings to see what they gravitate toward so you can improve the UX design and make essential information the centerpiece

  • Running A/B tests with on-page feedback to make small decisions

When to use the design thinking approach

Design thinking is part of product discovery when you’re building from scratch. Martina Tranström notes that “design thinking is a way of finding the answer to a certain hypothesis to know what to build.” Your focus will be on finding what isn’t there, not refining what you have. You’ll ask questions like “what else can we help users accomplish?” and “how have the audience’s needs changed?”

Since design thinking finds new product opportunities, design thinking activities include:

How to use human-centered design and design thinking together

While you need a foundational knowledge of individual UX design and product management principles, you can’t rely on one single strategy. 

For example, if you use design thinking to identify an opportunity but lack organizational awareness that your stakeholders are opposed to expanding the product right now, you’ll waste time researching for an initiative that can’t get off the ground. Alternatively, if you rely on human-centered design to perfect a product while ignoring quantitative data in your prioritization framework that shows that segment isn’t profitable, you’ll waste resources. 

Marco D’Emilia, a Design Manager at Hotjar, is a proponent of tailoring product management principles to fit your team. He says:

In Italy, we have a saying that translates literally to ‘learn the art and put it aside.' Once you’ve learned how to use the methodologies, you can apply them to different circumstances. They are there to help you and not to restrict you. There are so many frameworks; have fun, experiment, and don’t get stuck on labels!

Marco D’Emilia
Design Manager at Hotjar

Using human-centered design and design thinking together means you consider different user problems and preferences against organizational priorities and resources. You’ll weigh questions like:

  • Are users upset by what isn’t there or what is there?

  • Are you considering a new segment with unique needs or fine-tuning a veteran group?

  • Does this problem need a new solution, or can we rework what we have to meet the need?

When you make user empathy a priority in your team, you can use human-centered design and design thinking to learn, create, test, and improve more efficiently.

Put people at the center of your decision-making

Hotjar makes it easy to get product experience insights that tell you exactly how users feel—no more guessing and hoping for the best.

Human-centered design FAQs