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Just What Is UX Design Thinking?

design-thinking-graphicA respected user experience (UX) colleague on LinkedIn recently posed a rather interesting question: Are not UX design thinking and user-centered design (UCD) the same thing? It suddenly occurred to me that, while I almost instinctively recognize the distinction between the two, many people probably don’t think of them as two different perspectives. Aside from the overly technical description offered in Wikipedia, I see design thinking, and more specifically UX design thinking, as a pervasive perspective whereby I constantly critique the world for design flaws that promote incorrect behaviors. Conversely, I see UCD as just a methodology for creating usable designs.

A Cognitive Sore Thumb

When you smash your thumb with a hammer, you become acutely aware of how often you use that thumb in everyday life, because each time you use it, it hurts. UX design thinking is like a cognitive sore thumb. Once you understand what constitutes a bad design and how it affects user behavior, you can’t stop noticing how poorly many things are designed. And, as much as it hurts, I can’t stop doing it. My wife used to hate my incessant complaining about poorly designed interfaces, but now she, herself, can’t avoid noticing the obvious design failures rampant in so many websites.

sore-thumbAt the risk of over-generalizing, UCD is a way to define a problem, and UX design thinking helps solve it. UCD is more focused on understanding the users and their tasks, while UX design thinking works to balance the behavioral needs of the users with the business objectives and technology constraints.

User-centered design is more of an external process, while UX design thinking is more of an internal way of thinking and seeing. I use UCD to accurately and methodically identify user problems, but I apply UX design thinking to understand why they are problems for the users and how to solve them. UCD provides many rules and methods to help create good solutions, but UX design thinking helps determine which of many various approaches might best fit the given user and task.

For instance, I recently reviewed an online rebate application site and ran into a page with dozens of controls and pieces of text, which were confusing the users. Where UCD created separate controls for each artifact, design thinking helped us identity the interrelationship between the various artifacts and allowed us to distill the interface down to just three buttons, while still achieving the desired outcome. It reminded me of those logic puzzles where you have to figure out who was married to whom and what food the brought to the party, from three simple clues.

Just like a developer sees things in terms of code objects, or a graphic artist sees things in terms of visual artifacts, UX designers see things in terms of objectives, constraints, and expected user behaviors. Developers typically focus on writing code that does what it is supposed to do – making it work when things go right. UX designers try to predict what could go wrong and how it might affect the desired outcome – making it work when things go wrong. Developers have the luxury of working with logical, predictable technology. UX designers have to work with the highly variable, unpredictable, illogical, irrational, and emotional nature of humans. (Lucky developers!)

But I digress…


I think the biggest difference between UCD and UX design thinking is that I can start and stop UCD at will, but I’m burdened with this inexorable curse of seeing the utter failure of most designs. Sadly, I must even admit to dreaming in design thinking. Hopefully, soon, someone will create a support group to help me stop.

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