User Centred Design and Person Centred Design

By Gordon Rugg

There are often problems when a concept has a name which looks self-evident, but which is actually being used with a specific technical meaning.

This is the case with the terms User Centred Design (UCD) and Person Centred Design (PCD).

So what are these approaches, and why are they so different from other approaches to design, and why do these names lead to confusion?

In brief, User Centred Design and Person Centred Design with uppercase are names for methodologies containing specific methods and concepts. They’re terms of art, used with specific non-obvious meanings, hence the common confusions relating to them. So, what are the reasons for these approaches having arisen, and what is in them?

The vast majority of designers believe that their designs are centred around the person who will use their product (the user, in software design, or the person, in educational or medical design). They therefore make the understandable assumption that their design is a user-centred or person-centred design.

However, there are numerous sensible, but very different, interpretations of who that user/person is, and of how to centre the design around them. (For brevity and clarity, I’ll refer only to users from here on unless there’s a need to distinguish between UCD and PCD).

Examples of user include:

  • The person buying the product
  • The person using the product
  • The person maintaining the product

Examples of how to centre the design around them include:

  • Cost at point of sale
  • Lifetime cost of the product before it needs replacing
  • Reliability
  • Ease of cleaning
  • Ease of use

These are common, and perfectly reasonable, key features in design decisions.

They are very different from design features which are important from the viewpoint of the producer, but which may go against the interests of the user/person, such as:

  • Profitability
  • Increasing market share
  • Winning design awards


So, designing for the user can be very different from designing for the manufacturer or designing for the company that commissions the design.

Traditional design for the user tended to be either market research driven (People say they want X, and will pay money for it) or product driven (We can produce X, and we’ll market it to people).

If you try to design things based on traditional market research, you run into a batch of issues that feature repeatedly in this blog, because what people tell you that they want is only part of the picture. In brief, the full picture includes:

  • Do: What people do tell you (traditional market research methods)
  • Don’t: What they don’t tell you, but would be happy to if they remembered it, or thought it was relevant (where you need methods such as think-aloud and laddering)
  • Can’t: What they genuinely can’t put into words even if they want to (where you need methods such as observation)
  • Won’t: What they won’t tell you for various reasons (where you need methods such as projective approaches)

User Centred Design and Person Centred design are very much aware of these issues. They tend to focus on two themes arising from these issues.

One theme which is highly visible is the usability of the product, particularly with regard to ease of learning to use the product, and to ease of routine use. A major driving force for this development was market competition. Companies such as Apple and Google demonstrated very clearly that better usability meant better sales.

A second theme which is prominent within UCD process relates to the “Can’t” issue. Users often can’t say exactly what they want, but can immediately recognise something as exactly what they want once they see it. This relates strongly to the concept of affordances within UCD, where an affordance is something that a product enables you to do. Often, affordances are unexpected, and are discovered rather than planned. However, methods such as upward laddering enable designers to elicit a description of what users want to be able to do; methods such as downward laddering, and idea generation techniques, then help designers to create products that do what the users want.

The description above mainly focuses on products, but exactly the same issues apply to services, which are more salient in the world of healthcare.

UCD and PCD have developed into rich suites of methods and concepts for designing products and services centred around usability and around what users/people want and need, with particular emphasis on identifying and using affordances. These methods and concepts are very different from those used in traditional design.

So, that’s why UCD and PCD have developed the way they have, and that’s why the terms “user centred” and “person centred” can mean very different things to different designers.

Notes and links

There’s a good overview of this topic on Wikipedia.

This page of our website links to a set of articles about the issues involved in eliciting client requirements.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book: Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese 

You might also find our website useful:




3 thoughts on “User Centred Design and Person Centred Design

  1. Pingback: Tacit and semi tacit knowledge: Overview | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Explicit and semi-tacit knowledge | hyde and rugg

  3. Pingback: Tacit knowledge: Can’t and won’t | hyde and rugg

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