While rereading Don Normans "The Design of Everyday Things" I stumbled upon the term "Human Centered Design". I was aware of "User Centered Design" but this was new to me.

Is it just another title for the same concept or are there fundamental differences?

4 Answers 4


It would be easy to say yes they are the same thing, and you will find them used interchangeably because arguably the difference is only a virtue of the language or words used rather than the intended meaning.

In many ways they are the same and for most projects they will indeed amount to the same thing, however, User Centered Design should be considered to be a subset of Human Centered Design.

Human Centered Design has ISO Standards:

ISO 9241-210:2010: Ergonomics of human-system interaction -- Part 210: Human-centred design for interactive systems

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.

Human-system interaction. That doesn't necessarily mean 'users' per-se, although it might well include users. It doesn't necessarily include computers or devices in the sense of a physical device with keyboard and/or screen.

The System could be built into the environment, a piece of architecture, a workplace, or an inanimate product. People may not use the product in the way you and I use a website or smartphone, but they still interact with it.

Outside of this ISO standard, non-computing based products can still be considered under the umbrella of human or user centered design.

In Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things, he talks about Human Centered Design and development whilst discussing things like light switches, doors, taps (faucets) and other physical devices that are not computer based. These things still have users, but at some point to call those people 'users' starts to become a bit of a stretch - so you enter the realm of Human Centered Design, and that's where you start to think in terms of 'designing for people' as opposed to 'designing for users'.

  • Just to understand you right: you would make the distinction of having a user or not, or better calling the people interacting with a system users?
    – stefan.s
    Jan 23, 2015 at 9:40
  • 1
    I would make the distinction between there being (or not being) something you could definitively call a touchpoint between the system and a person where the person has a conscious awareness of the interaction. As always things are never always black or white and the middle ground may be more vague. You might design a building or a park or a city for people with social and environmental factors in mind, but the people who live or work there aren't users exactly - they're just - well - being! Also - maybe it depends on scale of interaction - micro and macro interactions if you like. Jan 23, 2015 at 9:53
  • There's almost certainly whole different fields of design and development that this answer is touching on and I'm almost certainly using the wrong terminology for some of this :) Jan 23, 2015 at 9:55

It's about the brain, so why users?

In short, the term user suggests some degree of interaction with a system or a product that responds to user actions. This definition is a bit problematic; consider these street posters:

Three posters on a wall in the street

Does their design has anything to do with users? Very little some will argue, but there is still a wealth of cognitive and psychological theories that can aid with designing these.

So when it comes to design anything that somehow will reach the human brain, the term Human-centred design is all-encompassing, whereas User-centred design is a big, yet a subset of it.

Why the term user is problematic

Some people in the industry, more commonly those who arrived UX from psychology and cognition disciplines, have a bit of an issue with the term user.

The fact that context is often ignored by UX designers is a known problem that many already shout about - the idea that any second the user's attention may shift from the system (say because of an odd sound from the outside) is something that arguably not enough people consider whilst designing systems.

But psychologists argue that the decision making process, and thus the overall user behaviour, is heavily influenced by the mental state of humans, which may be little influenced by the system itself. For instance, the actions of a person may change if she is looking forward to meet someone in the evening; even being hungry should change how people interact with systems.

The problem with the term user, for some, is that it implicitly assumes a high level of immersion from users - and such is hardly ever the case. Thinking of humans, rather than users, is likely to inform better designs that are more in tune with actual human behaviour.

  • I agree with your statement "The fact that context is often ignored by UX designers is a known problem"
    – stefan.s
    Jan 24, 2015 at 8:31
  • Wow, I'll have to think about this point for a bit, since language was my portal into UX. Feb 13, 2017 at 15:34
  • "Some people in the industry, mainly those who arrived UX from psychology and cognition disciplines, have a bit of an issue with the term user". Disagree entirely, back in 1988 when Don wrote "The Psychology of Everyday Things" (retitled later); psychologists involvement was through exciting fields called HCI and "Human Information Processing" - So users were just organic information processors under scientific investigation (see Don's early books jnd.org/books.html)
    – PhillipW
    Feb 13, 2017 at 18:23
  • 1
    @PhillipW - the sentence didn't read as intended, so I have amended it; thanks for flagging this up. Point is, some prefer the term 'human' because it is easier to remember that humans may be hungry, tired, or sexually aroused; the term 'user', albeit representing a human, may give the false impression of immersion with the system, promoting the common neglect of context and situation. Psychologists normally travel from humans to users, whereas UXers normally travel the other way around, hence the mention (along with quite a few discussions with psychology/cognition graduates turned UX).
    – Izhaki
    Feb 13, 2017 at 21:13

I agree that human centered design should be incorporated within the field of user centered design, as to simply put it- the user is a human. Humans have a vast range of emotions and different tendencies, so I think that in order to succeed in the general field of user centered design you must understand basic psychology principles (http://ux.walkme.com/psychology-lesson-taken-years-ago-improve-creative-design-skills-hoa-loranger/). Gaining a deep understanding of human cognition allows designers to fully understand the motives behind users' needs and preferences, and essentially allows them to design more successful products.


To emphasize the impact on stakeholders who might not typically be considered as users, ISO uses the term “human-centred” rather than “user centered”. (ISO 9241-210, 2010)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.