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January 23, 2020

HCD, UX, and CX: Why Their Differences Matter and Why They Don’t

By The Customer Experience Center of Excellence Team

If you work in federal IT, you might have heard “human-centered design,” “user experience” and “customer experience” so often that they’ve become meaningless buzzwords. That’s easy to understand; those words get tossed around haphazardly and are often used interchangeably. While the three terms have much in common, they are not the same thing.


Human-centered design (HCD) is an approach to defining and solving problems from the perspective of the people who will depend on the solution you come up with. If, for example, you were designing an online application for federal grants, your HCD process would involve the people who request grants as well as the people who process grant applications. You would observe and interview them as they interact with grants. You would analyze their challenges and explore their unmet needs. You would ask them to help you test the new or revised tools as you design them.

While HCD is a process, user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX) are broad concepts.


More than anything else, UX work is about understanding the context in which a thing will be used. Traditional development focused only on the system being created or improved. The idea was that if you clearly articulated functionality and focused your development on creating that functionality, you would produce successful software. It’s a reasonable, logical hypothesis.

Unfortunately, you can’t count on the people using your software to always be reasonable or logical. Human beings are idiosyncratic and the software you create for them is only a small part of their overall experience. When someone fills out a federal grants application in the earlier example, their actions might be influenced by every other application (digital or otherwise) they’ve ever filled out. Their experience could also be defined by the software they used to find the application, the apps they might have open on their mobile phone at the moment or any anxiety triggered by applying for money.

The UX industry exists because of the failure of system-centric software development. Creating functionality without first understanding the context in which the functionality is to be used too often resulted in software that people ignored or avoided or that required an inordinate amount of training to master.

Realistically, organizations can’t design all aspects of their users’ experiences, but when they invest in understanding the broader experience they can more effectively develop the relatively small part of it they can affect.


CX is at the same time more general and more specific than UX. Customer experience work is more general in that it usually involves the broader needs of an organization and more specific in that it focuses on a subset of users (people who are customers or likely to become customers.)

Organizations frequently use their CX practice to aggregate existing efforts (customer service, contact center operations, customer research, etc.) While UX initiatives often result in a new or revised thing, CX initiatives often operationalize several things across the organization. Launching a CX initiative to introduce a new method of collecting feedback from customers, for example, might be a tactic in a larger, organization-wide strategy to retain customers.

CX emerged first in the commercial sector, but more and more government agencies, both in the U.S. and across the world, are now treating a subset of citizens like customers.

This is one of the ways that CX is more specific than UX. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an enormous number and variety of people who use their services, but their initial CX efforts have focused on a very specific subset of users, Farm Service Agency customers who need to borrow money for farming.

Different, but not different

HCD, UX and CX aren’t the same things, but they have a great deal in common. They all involve researching the needs of users and working with them to design and test solutions. They each offer an alternative to traditional system-centric development that has proven, over time, to be ineffective. Most importantly, they all define and solve problems from the perspective of the people who receive services and use products, putting those people’s wants and needs at the center of development.

Learn more about how the Customer Experience Center of Excellence has applied HCD principles at our partner agencies.

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