Design Thinking vs. User-Centered Design

I’ve been having discussions at universities on this topic the last number of months and prior to that with many companies prompted by my evangelism of Design Thinking while having written a book some years ago on User-Centered Design. I regularly get asked how they are related.


In practice many people use the terms Design Thinking and User-Centered Design interchangeably but those who know the history of the field not only know that there is a difference, they often see Design Thinking as an inferior new framework that lacks the rigor and depth of User-Centered Design.

I don’t see them as competing. I see them as integrally linked, when practiced properly. Our Enterprise Design Thinking by IBM framework has integrated the methods of User-Centered Design directly into it.

Each framework historically has built upon its predecessor and incorporated key methods in it while typically broadening its scope. Human Factors and Usability methods were incorporated into User-Centered Design and User-Centered Design methods were in turn incorporated into Design Thinking.

Let’s look at an example. User-Centered Design includes user research methods such as structured interviews and ethnographic observation leading to a task analysis which typically was shared with others in a written report. Design Thinking, when practiced properly, also uses the same user research methods but further improves on User-Centered Design by not only focusing on tasks or what the user does, it opens the aperture on the user to also capture what the user thinks, says, and feels and it does it using an empathy map and a scenario map, ways of synthesizing and communicating that are collaborative, efficient, and much more actionable.

As I’ve mentioned here previously and in many talks, Design Thinking is being criticized entirely deservedly because many practitioners simply are using it incorrectly. Most are practicing what I call innovation theater, using stickies and sharpies on whiteboard walls, essentially using the mapping and collaboration methods without the User-Centered Design methods. That shouldn’t lead people to abandon Design Thinking in favor of User-Centered Design, it should lead to the doubling down on making sure to use a version of Design Thinking, like Enterprise Design Thinking by IBM, which has the methods of User-Centered Design incorporated directly in it.

Its worth mentioning that others argue for designers simply ideation solutions. Enterprise Design Thinking by IBM includes ideation but within the context of the user research and having understood and worked with the community of users. So designers and other disciplines do ideation, in fact, that’s a critically important element of the overall approach.

I’d like to suggest that we dispense with the academic arguments about Design Thinking and User-Centered Design as well as attempts to introduce new terminology and instead just ensure we carry out the user research and evaluation methods we all know from User-Centered Design and glean the benefits of the whole person view and the highly efficient collaboration and ideation mapping methods of Design Thinking.

I invite you to check out our website to learn more about Enterprise Design Thinking.