Human Centered Design and User Centered Design. Which one is better?

Last Modified: Jan 13th, 2021 - Category: UX

Let’s talk about one of of the most common doubts for those starting in UXD: the difference between Human Centered Design and User Centered design

Human-centered Design or HCD is the most common theoretical framework for User Experience specialists

However, we also have User-Centered Design, or UCD.

And guess what: it is the most common theoretical framework for User Experience specialists.

Human Centered Design and User Centered Design... similar... yet not the same
Photo by RyanMcGuire

Obviously, any reader will say:  Of course, they are obviously the same.”

Well…. not precisely.

As we saw in the User Experience Disciplines, these disciplines give our speciality a really large and broad scope. And if you look closely, you can notice the differences between the different specializations in UX. 

Note on the above: Not a single person in the world specializes in all areas of User Experience Design or UXD.

The difference between Human Centered Design and User Centered Design

There are many answers to this question, most of them almost philosophical in nature.

For example, some people say HCD is a framework and UCD is the design process.

Personally, I think both of them are UXD frameworks.

However, the differences are documented in the norms we must follow as user experience designers.

One of the fundamental differences between between Human Centered Design and User Centered Design is the ISO standard, which defines HCD (human), but not UCD (users). You can read the document at ISO Standards for Human-Centered Design, but basically it says the following:

ISO 9241-210: 2010 provides requirements and recommendations for human-centred design principles and activities throughout the life cycle of computer-based interactive systems.

It is intended to be used by those managing design processes, and is concerned with ways in which both hardware and software components of interactive systems can enhance human–system interaction.

Revised Source:

(the redundancy is not mine, so says the norm)

Meanwhile, for User Centered Design , we have the following definition:

User-centered design (UCD) or user-driven development (UDD) is a framework of processes (not restricted to interfaces or technologies).

In this framework, usability goals, user characteristics, environment, tasks and workflow of a product, service or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.

User-centered design can be characterized as a multi-stage problem-solving process. It requires designers to:

  • analyze and envision the way users are likely to consume a product
  • also to validate their assumptions with regard to the user behavior in real world tests.

These tests are conducted with/without actual users during each stage of the process from requirements, pre-production models and post production.

Such testing is necessary as it is often very difficult to understand intuitively what a first-time user of their design experiences

Also, it helps undertsand what each user’s learning curve may look like.

User-centered design is common in the design industry.

When used, UCD is considered to lead to increased product usefulness and usability.


Human Centered Design and User Centered Design
Image of 
Kristian Guevara

Did you get it? The HCD, as its name suggests, is related to the interaction between human and digital interfaces.

But in UCD, the relationship is between the user and any type of element. This may include interactive systems or not. 

For example, take Don Norman’s famous book “The Design of Everyday Things”. In this book, the author talks about lamps, furniture and other everyday objects.

But which one is better?

For some reason, we always tend to think in terms of better/worse. However, when working in UXD, we need to know there is no right or wrong answer unless we validate it with users.

Both Human Centered Design and User Centered Design have a lot of things in common and their processes are quite similar: research, ideate, prototype, test.

So the boundaries of both frameworks are quite diffuse.

Exception made of what defines them: one is specific for computer/digital based products and services, while the other applies to a broader variety.

To sum up: a subtle difference that makes a giant difference even when they sometimes overlap!

More Human Centered Design Resources & Bibliography

If you want to learn more about Human Centered Design, we made a selection of resources and bibliography about this subject.

Human Dignity and Human Rights: Thoughts on the Principles of Human-Centered Design – R. Buchanan (PDF)

Human-centered vs. user-centered approaches to information system design – S. Gasson (PDF)

Human-centered design meets cognitive load theory: designing interfaces that help people think – S. Oviatt (PDF)

A systems engineering perspective on the human-centered design of health information systems – G. Samaras, R. Horst

The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality – J. Jerald

Disclaimer: This content was translated to English from the original we wrote in Spanish, available in UXpañol

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