A woman looks over her shoulder at the camera in front of a ferris wheel.

Human-Centered Design Vs. Activity-Centered Design

One of the central tenets of design thinking is attention to users’ needs. As user bases expand to include ever more diverse groups, building consumer products that adequately address all their needs becomes a greater challenge.

Human-centered design focuses on the user while an alternative model called activity-centered design targets the function products are designed to complete. Read on to find out which is likely to be the most successful approach for creatives working in the 2020s and beyond.

Human-Centered Design & Design Thinking

More and more organizations are coming to realize the various benefits of business-driven design thinking. Creatives who frequently implement this framework will be well-aware that the first step is empathy. 

User research and data are assessed to identify pain points that the design can answer. In this case, problems are generated with the user and creatives work to solve them. The reason people respond so well to design thinking methodologies is because they get to play an active role in building something that is helpful and enjoyable to use. 

How has that changed in our current era? Masses of people are on the internet from a variety of devices, almost all of which are mobile, especially compared to the desktop computers of the 1990s and early 2000s. Occasionally, the design thinking model that gained popularity in the previous decade breaks down or generates sub-optimal solutions. 

In an essay titled “Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful,” co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group Don Norman points out several products and inventions that were developed slowly over many iterations without the help of user research the way creatives practice it today. He mentions the automobile, watch, and violin to illustrate this idea.

Norman’s claim is that creatives have become over reliant on user input. Sometimes, the user is incorrect. In one example, he explains that Southwest Airlines ignores user requests for inter-airline baggage transfers and assigned seating yet still remains a very popular airline because it manages to meet a budget requirement. 

The Southwest example is meant to demonstrate that the product or service itself can and often does have certain attributes that cannot be altered in service to customer desires. Understanding these aspects of the product involves some input from users, but designers need not be totally subservient to customer suggestions to build things people will enjoy using, at least according to Norman’s essay.

A few automatic digital check-in terminals at an airport.
Sometimes the ultimate purpose of a product clashes with user desires.

Activity-Centered Design Vs. Human-Centered Design

The strongest alternative to a completely human-centered design approach centers the activity being performed with a product rather than the wishes and desires of the people who use it. 

Describing these methodologies this way does dramatize the debate a bit too much. Essentially, the argument is whether people should adapt to the tools they have or whether creatives should endeavor to adapt the tools to the wishes of the users. 

It’s no surprise some people want to stick with the human-centered design they’ve found success with in recent years. Design thinking as a whole has proven itself in many industries, after all. 

But activity-centered design presents some big pluses of its own. For instance, it can cut down on overcomplication potential in software. If technology can only do so much, then the user adapting by learning a certain function is more appealing than a cumbersome software solution that adds extra steps to a process or uses incredible amounts of computing power simply to provide the illusion of ease. 

When it comes to aligning business interests and creative goals, activity-centered design can help reorient creatives around both the real user and the real task. Just as evidence-based personas and click tests get designers closer to the actual user, focusing on what the job looks like in practice keeps them on the right track. 

People don’t always have an honest impression of the way they use products or what the job of the product truly is. They might not be as discerning as they feel they are – and their favorite app might have a business model with a direct financial interest aside from the benefit it offers to users. 

So a focus on the real activity is just as useful as discovering users’ actual behavior. But which one should designers and other creatives look for first?

The Tool & The Task

The “reciprocal relationship between the tool and the task” is an idea discussed at length in activity-centered design books of all kinds. Whatever the activity is that a product is built for, it has to be adapted to that purpose to be useful. Similarly, the invention of new tools frequently changes the nature of the activity itself. 

Consider how grocery shopping apps work. In the past, the app might have been centered around making a shopping list that users could carry with them to the store. But now the modern consumer can do their shopping on a phone or tablet and pick it up or even have it delivered thanks to apps and mobile technology. The tool changed to meet new needs and transformed the activity of grocery shopping for many users. 

Many pre-internet analog tools followed this same pattern. Even era-defining inventions like the cotton gin revolutionized farming before being revolutionized themselves to improve crop yields and harvesting times. 

On a smaller scale, everyday objects like the food processor cut down time for grinding spices and blending different foods until they became an essential part of the modern kitchen in their own right. While it was invented to make cooking easier, it wound up changing the activity itself by making blended dishes like hummus more common in modern cuisine.

If there’s any one thing creatives should take away from the idea of an activity-centered design approach, it’s that focusing on the nature of the task can be just as informative as finding out what users imagine and desire regarding the activity and the product.

But that doesn’t mean this is a foolproof replacement for user-centered design thinking. There are some applications and contexts where concentrating on the activity doesn’t work well or winds up excluding users.

Drawbacks of Activity-Centered Design

Universal or inclusive design was founded on seven precepts:

  • Equitable Use
  • Flexibility in Use
  • Simple, Intuitive Use
  • Perceptible Information
  • Tolerance for Error
  • Low Physical Effort
  • Size & Space for Approach & Use

The main idea behind these seven guidelines is to ensure designs make people’s lives easier and are available to everyone regardless of background, former knowledge, or physical and mental capability. 

When you focus on the activity, it’s all too easy to lose sight of people from smaller or just underrepresented groups. For instance, the automobile that formed such a large part of the Norman essay we mentioned at the start of this guide simply wasn’t built to accommodate wheelchairs. You have to empathize with wheelchair users to invent solutions like hand controls and ramps.

Shortsightedness and lack of vision on the part of designers can also negatively impact the appeal and effectiveness of activity-centered design. We’ve already discussed how the tools developed by designers can fundamentally change the activity they’re meant to help with. If the designers don’t foresee the potential for change in the activity, then their solutions are very likely to have limited applicability. 

In the same vein, designers can underestimate or essentialize users. The solution to both problems is similar: leave open the possibility for the user or the activity to change and make sure you have metrics in place so that you can recognize when it does.

Sometimes the users and other people involved in the activity are the ones trailblazing. Other times, the innovation arises organically as new tools or new ways to use existing tools are invented according to their attributes. 

So which one of these approaches should be used? Is there some kind of test that will tell you for sure when to use user-centered design or activity-centered design? In this case, there’s no definitive answer that covers every scenario – creatives should be prepared to use both. 

Blending User-Centered & Activity-Centered Design

Lest we allow these distinctions to get too convoluted, let’s make it clear that even the staunchest advocates of activity-centered design don’t believe that the user should be entirely ignored all the time. While they do tend to defend designers as the most knowledgeable party involved in product development, they also acknowledge that users’ needs, thoughts, and desires need to be taken into consideration. 

Creatives first and foremost need to understand their product, its current development stage, and the effect it has on its target activity. If you’re working on designing an eCommerce website, for example, you ought to know how it impacts shopping as an activity and as a user experience. Currently, online shopping has transformed how we buy everything from clothing to cars. A new eCommerce site has to play into these developments and anticipate further ones within reason. 

In some cases, extensive users of a product are the best-situated ones to imagine how it is reshaping an activity. Other times, creatives will have to rely on other metrics to see when the activity is being impacted. Large numbers of users abandoning the product or service when there hasn’t been a design overhaul is one likely indicator that the activity or the tasks it comprises have changed enough that the original design doesn’t work anymore. 

The best advice is to pay attention to both. Remember that unless you’re forging into completely new territory (a rarity these days) then your product is already situated within a certain development context. There is very little that hasn’t been impacted by the internet and mobile technology and your area of concern is probably in the middle of a change of some kind. 

In one dissertation from Purdue University, student designers acknowledged that a conception of both technology-centered and service design would be needed to completely understand users and integrate that understanding into design work. Human-centered design was referred to as a Service by these student designers while human-centered design was called technology-centered, most likely in reference to our society’s current obsession with new smart tech tools. 

Either way, the student designers in this dissertation testified to something vital about combining these two design approaches. Whatever your personal preference between them, you do need both to fully understand the user. We’ll also posit that you need both to understand the activity your product engages with and changes over time. 

Without research, creatives would be left with idealized or brainstormed ideas about what an activity looks like or could and should look like. Just like they would wind up with idealized and unrealistic user personas without doing their due diligence with user research, they would wind up with a storybook or totally out-of-touch version of the activity they’re trying to design to.

Learning By Doing in the Age of the Customer

Where once people were by and large stuck with technical tools they had to study and train to use properly, most today prefer intuitive processes that you can jump right into because that’s what they’re more used to dealing with. 

That’s part of what creatives have to understand when they’re taking an activity-centered approach or a user-centered one. Users always want a seamless procedure to follow, not a jargon-ridden pathway with few road signs to let them know where they are in the process and how they’re doing so far. 

It might not sound like a massively big deal for people who are buying small items on the internet, but more complicated products like software that handles medical records or helps people file their own taxes have to be intuitive and make the activity easier or else people just aren’t going to use it. 

And you can’t learn by doing when it comes to something like filing taxes. Sure, you probably will learn a few things if the software explains them and you’re bound to be more comfortable with the process after you’ve gone through it a few times, but people don’t want to be left the ability to experiment with filing taxes the way you could play around with what kind of pizza toppings you like.

As the number of customers swells, appealing to all of them becomes a greater challenge. A larger group is typically more diverse and that means designers need to privilege the activity their products facilitate a bit more. 

Of course, users and their desires still need to be discovered and taken into account. But in the age of the customer, we appear to be reworking our way back to the days of broadcast ideas. The extra demand on creatives is that customer bases are simultaneously larger and more atomized – individual characteristics and preferences are found out with enough user data and research. That means design has to operate on a large and small scale simultaneously. 

User-centered design heralded in the age of the internet. Activity-centered design is a new aspect of the design thinking that helped technology evolve in the last 15 to 20 years. While people have seemingly infinitesimal taste differences, concentrating on the activity they want to perform with a product helps find the common denominator between users. 

Activities are made up of smaller tasks and actions the same way a customer base is made up of tons of different individual users. Understand how a given activity breaks down and appreciate the novel ways people are expanding the tasks and broadening the tools made for them by designers. That way you can stay on top of where the future of the product and the activity lies. 

While there’s no predicting exactly how things will unfold, blending activity-centered design with user-centered design will help creatives see what direction the next big change is coming from. Maybe the activity itself has morphed or perhaps the users have changed. Learn both of these design thinking approaches and you’ll have strategies no matter which direction the product develops.

A bartender smiles at a customer as he shakes a mixer.
The customer experience is more important with the proliferation of receptive audiences.


It’s easy and even tempting to position activity-centered design as an opposing approach to user-centered design. In fact, both are needed to keep up with the latest design thinking trends. 

The way we live is impacted by the products we design. Users change when they learn to use new products and the activities they’re engaged in often change as well. Activity-centered design focuses on the potential for change in the way we do things. Together with design that centers the user, it’s a great approach for creatives to take in their work.

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