Human-Centered Design vs. Design-Thinking: How They’re Different and How to Use Them Together to Create Lasting Change

Cole Hoover

Cole Hoover is the Director of the MovingWorlds Institute.

Picture this scenario: The leadership team of your organization is facing pressure from its board to be more ‘innovative’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ by finding a market-based model to create impact. Not exactly knowing where to start, the leadership team reads a blog post about human-centered design and starts using buzzwords around the office… “Let’s build more empathy!, Are you thinking like designers?, Is this idea prototype-able and have you battle tested it?, Did you ideate enough options?”.

At first, all of the fancy and fun new concepts zinging around the office generates excitement. Perhaps someone buys sticky notes for all the conference rooms and even passes out copies of IDEO’s Design Kit to all staff members. Instead of simply being “Design Thinkers”, leadership now charges the entire organization with being “Human-Centered Designers”. But after the initial commotion… nothing happens. Innovations don’t appear. New business models that create impact are not discovered. Things return to the status quo.

The scenario above is a common one. For all of the talk about “Design Thinking”, there remains a lot of confusion. But don’t worry – you’re not alone. Below are practical tips, developed in the MovingWorlds Institute, for how to think about both “Design Thinking” and “Human-Centered Design” as complementary tools that can be used together to create lasting results.

What’s the difference between “Design Thinking” and “Human-Centered Design”?

Design Thinking, popularized by Stanford’s, is a process that you go through to create solutions that will actually be adopted by people (Note, we use “solutions” to mean a product, process, or service that will be used by a person or group of people).

Design thinking process
Design thinking process

Human-Centered Design, popularized by, is a mindset that overlays design thinking to ensure that the products are actually relevant and beneficial— in the long run — for the people they are intended to serve.

Human-Centered Design Process
Human-Centered Design Process

To make this more clear, any business can use Design Thinking to build a solution that is capable of making money. For example, a company may use Design Thinking to create a video game or TV show for kids. Applying Human-Centered Design on top of this will ensure that the show actually serves the needs of the people watching it (for example meeting the learning objectives of the children watching the show or playing the game).

To make this more tangible, let’s use the real-world example of Ubongo Kids, an educational TV and YouTube show that provides top quality educational content to Africa’s 440 million children. Where Design Thinking could have developed a viral television show, perhaps one with violent images you would find in a typical action cartoon, Ubongo Kids applied a Human-Centered approach instead to ensure that the team understood the learning goals for their audience and were able to meet them. This, in turn, fostered ongoing product innovations which helped the team achieve its mission for future generations to come.

In the MovingWorlds Institute, a professional development program for mid-career individuals looking to align their career with impact, we define Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design like this:

Human-Centered Design Thinking vs Design Thinking
Human-Centered Design Thinking vs Design Thinking

How do you use Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design Together?

Design Thinking was as originally popularized by IDEO for creating commercial products (like the original apple mouse), and it is typically used to create market-based products and/or services. Human-Centered Design takes this a step further and provides a mindset and tools to ensure these products and/or services actually improve the lives of the end-users or beneficiaries. Combined, they offer a process and mindset that creates self-sustaining solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Using Design Thinking and Human Centered Design together
Using Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design together

Making it Practical

Let’s take a closer look at the 5 steps of the Design Thinking process, and see how Human-Centered Design enriches and focuses each step:

Using Human-Centered Design Thinking with Design Thinking
Using Human-Centered Design with Design Thinking

Getting Started.

According to the principles of Human-Centered Design, before we start the 5-stage Design Thinking process we need to adopt a mindset which is optimistic that a solution is discoverable, and that the solution lies in the population we are trying to serve.

Stage 1: Empathize.

Design Thinking begins first with understanding people, and trying to focus on a definable problem that this group of people has. During this stage, Human-Centered Design reminds us that we are in the “Inspiration” phase, and that we should not rush to get to execution. This enables us to more fully first understand the people we are trying to serve, and HCD also provides ethical methods on how to do so.

Stage 2: Define.

Design Thinking then recommends that you frame one problem that you can meaningfully design towards. On top of this, Human-Centered Design guides us to converge stakeholders to better understand their needs, assets, and opportunities to align around one common, shared problem.

Stage 3: Ideate.

Design Thinking guides us to come up with as many ideas as possible — not just “right” ideas. To this, Human-Centered Design recommends creative processes in this “ideation” phase on how to generate more ideas in partnership with those we are serving.

Stage 4: Prototype.

Design Thinking tells us to develop a minimum viable prototype to see if the solution will actually be adopted by the market. Human-Centered Design provides tools in this “Implementation Phase” that recommend prototypes be built in partnership with key stakeholders and end-users in order to get their feedback and suggestions.

Stage 5: Test.

Design Thinking tells us to test the prototypes in order to first identify if they will be adopted, and also as a format to learn more about the end-user. Human-Centered Design checks to make sure that not only will the population adopt the solution, but that it actually creates impact along the identified goals of making things better.

Other frameworks that should be considered when using Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design

While Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design have proven, time and time again, to bring more impactful ideas to market, used alone they are not enough to transform an entire organization to be more “entrepreneurial” or “impactful”. In addition to these two frameworks, we live by three other powerful guides at MovingWorlds:

  1. Systems mapping so you can first understand the audience – and its influencers. FSG has a great guide on this, as does Disruptive Design.
  2. Network based leadership so you can build effective partnerships
  3. Business Model Generation, so that once your prototype is ready for market, you have a plan on how to test it for sustainability and scalability. Ingrid Burkett developed a great eGuide translating BMG for the social impact sector.

While Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design focus on end-beneficiaries, these 3 additional frameworks complete our toolkits by focusing on external stakeholders as well. Here’s how all 5 frameworks interact to engage both internal and external stakeholders to identify a new solution:

Design thinking and other frameworks for social enterprises
Design thinking and other frameworks for social enterprises

To Summarize

Learning the lingo is step one, but to really embrace the principles of these frameworks, you need to put what you’re learning into practice. If your entire organization is seeking to become more entrepreneurial, then identify opportunities to not just learn about these approaches, but to actually experiment with them in real life scenarios. As any designer will tell you, you get better by doing, not just theorizing.

Want to learn more about leading social impact frameworks like these and gain hands-on experience putting them into action? We invite you to apply to the MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellowship Program.