You have probably come across these terms in the trade press.
User-Centered Design (UCD) and Human-Centered Design (HCD).
They sound familiar, don’t they?
The terms often appear in the articles devoted to User Experience, usability, and interface design and serve as a sort of interpretation of design ‘philosophy’ and methodology. Frequently, they are the disguise for quite practical and specific design guidelines, patterns, and recommendations.
When writing about User-Centered Design and Human-Centered Design, are we dealing with the same thing? Are these terms synonymous? Or maybe they are complementary?
Is distinguishing Human-Centered Design and User-Centered Design useful? Isn’t it a multiplication of terms?
Aren’t we creating concepts that sound intriguing but do not change much in the daily work of UX/UI designers and mobile and web application User Experience (UX)?
Let’s find out!
What is the difference between the human and the user?
Although at first glance, the question seems misleading, in fact, it is not. Yes, you need to be a human to be a user.
From this relationship, it is easy to conclude that this is about synonyms used for describing, defining, and identifying the same designatum.
Is it the case? Well, not really.
When we hear these two terms, intuition tells us that we are dealing with a broader concept (human) and a term relating to a more narrow reality (user).
However, the two are not in opposition, are not mutually exclusive, and are not antonyms. But they are not synonyms, either.
They are complementary from the perspective of User Experience, UI Design, and interface design.
Generally, both focus on the issue of offering solutions as desirable, appropriate, convenient, satisfactory, attractive, and usable as possible.
To both humans and users.
So what’s the difference between them? What allows us to distinguish them and consider them useful tools in daily design practice?
By empathizing, we want to understand and feel what a human feels while using them.
We want to gain insight into their perspective and point of view, into how they experience the world, respond to reality, and act in it.
By empathizing, we want to know the reasons for human reactions.
Human-Centered Design primarily focuses on complete multidimensional knowledge and understanding of the perspective of the persons using the application.
Human-Centered Design is based on iterative solution creation, testing, learning, and adapting the product using feedback.
To understand and know the user, first of all, we want to get to know their actions and reactions. We want to know a more tangible, measurable, and objective ‘truth’ about how they interact with applications.
User-Centered Design involves adapting the design, technologies, and functionalities to the users’ needs, tendencies, and preferences.
And this adaptation begins at the most elementary stages of digital product creation.
In the digital product design process, both perspectives and approaches should be considered equally useful and complementary ways of understanding needs and expectations.
Of understanding specifics of actions, emotions, habits, and experiences.
As humans, we enter into emotional interactions with applications.
As users, our interactions with digital products are conditioned by our experience, cognitive abilities, and expectations.
And also by our needs, goals, and preferences in achieving them.
How User-Centered Design complements Human-Centered Design?
Let’s start with User-Centered Design because this approach is much more often described and more popular.
The term itself is almost thirty years old and is associated with Donald Norman, one of the first academics to study and describe the issue of usability systematically.
UCD and HCD are the approaches in which continuous research, diagnosis, and taking into account user needs and requirements play an important part.
At each stage of the design process.
Both these approaches focus on examining and analyzing slightly different aspects and areas of Human-Application, or more generally, Human-Computer Interactions (HCI).
User-Centered Design and Human-Centered Design are approaches in which iteration plays a key role.
This means that they are based on the concept of iteration of research, procedures, methods, techniques, variants, and versions to get better results.
The aim is, of course, to create a highly usable application.
Iterations are primarily used to understand the following better:
- The context in which the product will be used
- User requirements for the digital product
- Accuracy of identifying, defining, and learning the context and requirements
- Product relevance as regards the context and requirements.
A typical process includes:
- Observation aimed at getting to know the problems and limitations users experience in natural situations
- Definition of design guidelines and an indication of appropriate solutions
- Prototype creation
- Prototype testing.
The observation allows you to create usage scenarios for future applications. The guidelines will enable you to establish the framework for solution searching.
The application prototype allows you to test individual solutions involving users.
Most importantly, combining UCD and HCD approaches as part of the process enables you to take into account the entire spectrum of User Experience (UX).
As a wider framework introducing a broader context into the design process, Human-Centered Design, above all, allows you to understand the human aspect of future users.
It includes the understanding of the following:
- Uniqueness, difference, and specificity, but also the repetitiveness of their perspective
- Their way of thinking and conceptualizing the world
- Their desires and values that guide them and that are close to them
- Their functioning in the cognitive, emotional, and psychosocial aspects.
Human-Centered Design also has predictive values. It enables you to understand the impact of products on the users.
It allows you to view the use of applications not only from the perspective of their performance, usability, stability, and availability but also from the possible relationships between the human and the device and software.
In other words, Human-Centered Design and User-Centered Design allow you to understand the following:
- Who will use your digital product?
- How will they use it?
- Why and for what purpose will they use it?
- With what result will they use it?
- In what situations will they use it?
- With what emotions will they use it?
- With what attitude will they use it?
- With what capabilities and limitations will they use it?
Both approaches multiply the probability of better understanding:
- Users, also in their typically human aspect
- Limitations, reluctance, barriers, and moments when the flow is not smooth.
Starting with a purely human perspective and based on empathy and the desire to understand and share a common perspective, the designers are more likely to discover the required solutions faster and more effectively.
It is worth remembering that there are many ways to solve problems, but only a few of them are perceived by humans and users as the most:
- Desirable and expected
- Easy or at least undemanding
- Economical (in the sense of the economization of cognitive processes).
Combining Human-Centered Design and User-Centered Design allows you to prevent problems.
It is a preventive measure in the strict sense of the word.
At the same time, it allows you to more effectively predict and use previous experience (also design failures).
In short, it enables you to learn while minimizing the cost generated by an error not foreseen in the design process.
Human-Centered Design allows you to get to know and define the specific nature of human-machine and human-system relationships.
This applies to the course and results of interactions between the users and:
For example, the tactility of mobile devices is a separate set of measures, goals, problems, errors, interaction costs, or human factors that result from them.
HCD allows you to reduce the number of errors and make interactions with a mobile phone, tablet, or smartwatch smoother and hassle-free.
It enables you to understand the capabilities of a typical user and the effect of the designed operations, modes of operation, appearance, and context on the course of interactions.
Human-Centered Design reminds you that the user should perceive a mobile or web application as:
- Familiar and predictable
Doesn’t it sound like a recipe for the understanding of human nature? It sure does!
But the understanding of the human/user duo in its typically human aspect is not the only advantage of combining Human-Centered Design and User-Centered Design.
What are the benefits of HCD and UCD in the design process?
Perhaps the most important result of the combined use of both approaches is ensuring the maximum possible:
- Effectiveness of finding desirable solutions
- Digital product improvement
- Relevance for the users’ needs and requirements
- Reduction of the time needed to obtain a ready product as error-free as possible
- Process rationalization
- Increasing the accuracy of design decisions.
The use of the HCD & UCD approach pair allows you also to align your business goals with the users’ goals and to balance their importance.
Harmonization, synchronization, and fine-tuning of these two often conflicting goals and perspectives offer considerable business benefits.
Human-Centered Design vs. User-Centered Design. Summary
- User-Centered Design and Human-Centered Design are complementary but not synonymous terms.
- User-Centered Design and Human-Centered Design focus on the issue of offering solutions as desirable, appropriate, convenient, satisfactory, attractive, and usable as possible to humans and users.
- When focusing on the purely human aspect of application use, we primarily try to understand emotions.
- Human-Centered Design is based on the iterative creation of solutions, testing them, and adapting digital products to the emotional needs of the persons who will be using them.
- To understand and know the user, first of all, we want to get to know their actions and reactions.
- User-Centered Design consists of adapting the design, technologies, and functionalities to the more or less conscious needs, tendencies, experiences, and preferences acquired in the course of using similar applications.
- Both approaches should be considered equally useful and complementary ways of understanding and defining needs and expectations in the digital product design process.
- As humans, we enter into emotional interactions with applications. Applications are not emotionally indifferent to us.
- As users, our interactions with digital products are conditioned by our experience, cognitive abilities, expectations, needs, goals, and preferences in achieving them. Both modes are equivalent.
- User-Centered Design and Human-Centered Design are approaches in which continuous research, diagnosis, and taking into account user needs and requirements at each stage of the design process play an important part.
- User-Centered Design and Human-Centered Design are approaches in which iteration plays a key role.
- Iterations serve a better understanding of the context, requirements, and product relevance as regards context and requirements.
- Both approaches multiply the probability of understanding the users, tasks, contexts, experiences, processes, goals, limitations, reluctance, barriers, frictions, and moments when the flow is not smooth.
- Combining Human-Centered Design and User-Centered Design enables you to prevent problems and errors and minimize costs.
- Using both approaches allows you to achieve the maximum possible impartiality, objectivity, reliability, and effectiveness of UX research and designs based on them.
- It allows you to combine business and user goals harmoniously.