Human vs. User Centered Design

For UX designers and marketers alike, understanding the way people interact with digital content is essential. Digital marketing is a field on the rise, and the ability to incorporate user-centered or human-centered design can contribute significantly to advertising, marketing, and overall brand interactions. But what exactly is the difference between human-centered and user-centered design, and which, if any, is better for organizations looking to boost their digital presence?

Human-centered design and user-centered design are similar enough that some designers use the terms interchangeably. Indeed, they share some fundamental commonalities, essentially acting from a stance of empathy for the user and how they navigate the online world. These design processes go beyond aesthetic preferences, and instead consider how a user tangibly and even emotionally interacts with an interface, platform, or digital product. 

That being said, differences between the two do exist. User-centered design is an approach that is built around users and their inherent way of interacting online. The ultimate goal of user-centered design is to keep designs as useful as possible and relevant to users’ natural tendencies, evolving them so that they cater to people’s needs and desires rather than having people adjust to the technology and design as it stands. This is how a company creates a product that demonstrates high value to the user. In designing a website, for example, a designer taking a user-centered approach might ask the following: who are the users of the website? What are their tasks and goals? Is he or she multitasking? What information might the users need, and in what form do they need it? What functions are required, and how do users expect the website to already work? 

Human-centered design, on the other hand, is a design process that involves the human perspective at each stage of the design process, and requires frequent ideation, testing, learning and adjustments based on the feedback from a sample of the intended audience. It is data-driven and can be extremely interdisciplinary, involving fields such as product design and business design. One key difference is that, whereas user-centered design might focus on more tangible aspects of digital interaction such as website layout, human-centered design can incorporate users’ emotional, psychological, and even physiological preferences. An example of this would be a desk designed ergonomically so as to reduce user discomfort and stress. 

While these processes enable companies to produce higher quality, more usable products, critics of user- and human-centered design argue that placing too much emphasis on the individual user might end up producing an outdated or irrelevant product or service, as preferences, wants, and needs can rapidly change. Moreover, by tailoring to present-day needs of users, designers lack the ability to push the boundaries of available technology. 

Nonetheless, regardless of which approach is taken within a design process, the ability to meet the user’s needs is crucial. Despite their subtle differences, principles of human-centered and user-centered design do overlap and are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In the end, the ability provide a design that is more inclusive, logical, and efficient for the individual is what is essential to ensuring success in the digital marketplace.

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