HCD vs Design Thinking vs Service Design vs UX …. What do they all mean?

Charan Singh
Dec 28, 2016 · 6 min read

This is a writing inspired from one of my Linkedin connection’s work, who is a awesome designer.

Is your latest product/service created through a human centred, design thinking agile approach with user experience design and service design experts who used their creative intelligence to create something guaranteed to be loved by your users?

In this world of acronyms and buzzwords, we often find ourselves using multiple words to describe one thing. In this case — the process of designing products and services around the actual needs of the end user. This is not a particularly new or complicated concept however we use 10, 20 or maybe even 30 different terms to describe it.

Trends, changes in technology and the origin of the phrase have a large impact on some of the nuances between different methodologies and concepts. I don’t believe all the terms are required, but to avoid always using the answer “there is almost no difference” when I asked, I did some further research and have tried to give a summary of not only the definition but some of the key differences to a number of the commonly used definitions.

This is very much designed as an ongoing discussion, so please feel free to comment and discuss below.


A framework is a supporting structure for an underlying system or concept. It is the high-level concept that guides and forms the basis for further definitions. In this context it forms the structure around a number of processes, theories and methods of designing with the user needs in mind.


User Centred Design is the overarching framework of processes that integrates a broad set of practices around understanding the needs, wants, and limitations of end users. It can improve strategic decision-making as well as increase the effectiveness of individual programs and services. Many agencies and organisations claim to have a “client centric/human centred approach” however fall at key hurdles e.g. the final UAT phase or when some insight is put forward that shakes their view of the world!

Although some may argue me on this point I really think HCD and UCD are at their core the same thing. The social development sector tend to use human centred design more (think IDEO.org), as it encompasses their values better than calling beneficiaries “users”.

It is within HCD/UCD that most of our terms can be defined.


A methodology is not normally a design process in itself, rather a concept that defines the parameters, value, and goals within which to work. In this context it is a set of methods, or rules, that are important in order to apply UCD principles in order to complete product development.

Note: “Product development”, whilst mostly associated with digital services when discussing UX, can also apply to physical products. This therefore often exceeds the scope of UX, including characteristics such as manufacturing constraints, costs, material properties and sustainability, recycling lifecycle etc. I will therefore restrict the scope to Digital Services in this discussion


A design methodology based around how to organise service provision around the interactions between users, touchpoints, service personnel, and backstage actors. It considers organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality. It is not limited to digital or a single product/service.


Unlike Service Design this method is focused just on user–touchpoint interactions rather than also considering the wider service. It is about designing with a focus placed on the quality of the User Experience and culturally relevant solutions. Although often interchanged frequently, unlike pure UX it can be expanded to cover all the touch points a customer encounters when dealing with a company not just a single product/service.


A UCD process which assess the quality of experience a person has when interacting with a specific design or product. It focuses mostly on a specific technology, i.e. people interacting with a particular product and the experience they receive from that interaction rather than any wider human-human or human-service interaction.


User Interface Design is a tool used to maximise a person’s user experience. It will focus on ensuring interactions with the product / service are simple and efficient whilst also ensuring, when appropriate, the product is pleasing to the eye. Information architecture and usability testing are as important as the graphic design, typography, colour schemes and overall aesthetics for a UI designer.


An approach is a way of actually delivering these methodologies. It is, if you like, the template upon which to act. I have just chosen a few popular examples to highlight this point however there are many more and often you will just head the phrase “by following the Experience Design Methodology”.


When applying UX, often teams will follow a “lean” or “agile” approach. Inspired by the use of UX in start-ups and Lean development theories, Lean UX speeds up the UX process by putting less emphasis on deliverables and greater focus on the actual experience being designed. On the other hand, the core goal of Agile UX is to unify developers and designers in the Agile process of product development whilst still holding traditional UX principles of design. There is an ongoing discussion in the design community as to the similarities and differences of these two terms.

Source — http://www.andersramsay.com/2012/04/24/agile-ux-vs-lean-ux/


Design Thinking is methodology of discover/design/prototype/test/repeat on which to base your UCD principles. It is a highly collaborative, human-centred, and iterative approach to problem seeking and problem-solving, relying heavily on empathy, ideation and experimentation to drive innovative solutions that people love. It is a method of meeting people’s needs and desires whilst ensuring that the solution is both technologically feasible and strategically viable.


This approach focuses on the inter-relationships of all connected parts to understand the underlying structure. So a design team would not only considers changes to a system that will lead to the elimination of a specific problem; but the team will also consider all elements as part of one big system. Systems thinking is an older concept that has been around for longer than digital. It has slowly adapted with the times and can be seen to have formed the basis for the more holistic views employed in Experience and Service design.

This summary is not close to exhaustive, but I think it is enough to give a flavour ….. Human-Computer Interaction, IA, guerrilla research, strategic UX, Emotional design, Human Factor, Industrial Design, Creative Intelligence, Customer Experience are also words that belong to this ‘family’. These and many more will come and go as fashions, technology and trends change. The key is not in the definition you use, but how well you employ the methods and approach the design.

If you got time, Here is my another writing on CREATIVITY : https://medium.com/@charan3/dont-ever-ask-for-creativity-7fe10eee5168

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