With the recent “rise of UX”, I’ve observed a lot of confusion from people in the field, and even more so from people who aren’t. Confusion about acronyms (UX, CX, SX, IxD), Job titles (UX designers/Graphic designers/Visual designers/Interaction designer/Product designers/Service designers etc.) and confusion about the methods and tools (User Centered Design, Design Thinking, Agile UX and Lean UX… ).

This is the first of a series of blog post aiming at clarifying the field of UX, to the benefit of my colleagues and clients. Today, I’ll start by explaining the difference between Design Thinking and UCD.

So… What’s UCD?

UCD stands for User Centered Design. It is a framework that ensures the needs of the users are at the core of the design process. It’s not limited to digital product design, but it’s part of the ISO 9241-210 standard (replacing the ISO 13407)

There are slightly different flavours of UCDs in existence. Some suggest using participatory design, some contextual design but they all share the following principles:

  • The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments...
  • Users are involved throughout design and development.
  • The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation
  • The process is iterative.
  • The design addresses the whole user experience.
  • The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

The UCD process doesn’t prescribe methods or tools to use, and could therefore be applied to Waterfall, Vmodel, Agile or Lean developments.

Concretely, the principles listed above could be translated by:

  • a research phase - typically contextual enquiry, or interviews
  • a design phase - initially medium fidelity, but increasing fidelity through iterations
  • a test phase - to ensure the tool follows user’s mental model, and interaction. Typically done via usability tests.
  • ....with iterations between design/test/build until you have a satisfactory product.
  • a build phase - when the design has been de-risked.


One could say that the UCD is a framework created to ensure businesses can address and measure how they address user needs in a standardised way, but without prescribing the tools to get there.

What is Design Thinking?

According to Wikipedia, the idea of design thinking was born in 1969, but was adapted to businesses by David M. Kelley and was made popular by his company IDEO in 1991. Then, it was presented as a method for designing innovative solutions for specific problems (not restricted to software), with a strong bias given to “action”.

Design thinking suggests that for creating anything of value, you need to follow 5 steps:

  1. Empathise with the potential user(s) of the product or service you’re designing for. You can do this by talking to such people using appropriate interview techniques, observing them using ethnographic techniques, or taking their role for a period of time.
  2. Synthesize your findings, and define/reframe the problem you’re trying to solve, focusing on the user’s viewpoint.
  3. Generate a large amount of ideas to solve the problem. Generate as many as possible in order to encourage innovation. Often, the first idea is too generic and not really innovative.
  4. To validate an idea, the simplest is to make a prototype of it. It doesn’t have to be high definition. A prototype should illustrate your idea in a way you can test it with people to see if it works. The important point here is not create an artefact of some sort that can be used, so that people can interact with it and critique (which is easier and more precise than critiquing ideas)
  5. Test your idea with people to see what works and what doesn’t, so that you can refine it.


The intent with this method is to test the concept as quickly as possible with potential users of the future system. You’ll find what works and what doesn’t and you can refine the concept accordingly.
You can iterate the prototype and test as many times as necessary to reach the desired outcome. The method used to prototype isn’t prescribed, as long as it is shorter/cheaper than to do it for real.

So what’s the difference?

During my training as a product designer, I was taught design methods involving design thinking. This allowed for maximum creativity and avoided large manufacturing costs.

When my career took me to become a UX designer, it was obvious that the same rationale applied. After all, a piece of software is a product like any other…it just happens to be digital.

However, at the time, the software industry was *just* starting to consider the user of a system as an important factor… Those who cared about the user of their tool used a User Centered Design approach, that later became part of the ISO92400 regulation.

At a high level there is no reason to think those two principles are contradictory. When applied to digital products and interfaces, I’d argue that they are actually very similar. Both frameworks aim at insuring the real needs from the users are at the center of the tool created.
Both come with a set of tools and methods to help the practitioner(s) at each stage to make it happen, and neither is really prescriptive about “how” you design.

In effect, IDEO have developed a bit more the “ideate” phase, and a lot of tools are available to designers for it… This aside, the tools used in their “empathise” and “test” phases are the same as those used in UCD.

So, from my viewpoint, “Design Thinking” is one specific implementation within the UCD framework. At Cambridge Consultants, the tools we use depend on the context of the project, its timeline, the client and the experience of the people involved.

For some projects we’ll use more Design Thinking techniques, and for others we’ll apply a different UCD approach. We adapt our tools to the project constraints and still think about end-users, do our research and iterate!

Recently, we’ve also been asked to be more Agile… so in the next chapter, I’ll explain how Lean UX and Agile Methodologies fit into this picture. In the meantime, feel free to reach out in the comments to continue the conversation!

Marine Barbaroux