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Design Thinking = Agile?

9 December 2016

The Agile movement is gaining ground as more organizations understand its benefits and advantages. The general consensus is that by using Agile for software and product development, one can enhance collaboration among the different teams and achieve higher product quality, which in turn results in greater customer satisfaction and a better market fit. It also helps to shorten time to market, as it reduces wasted efforts and, ultimately, development costs. Though all of this is true, it depends heavily on user feedback and experimentation.

Experimentation and user feedback are not new concepts. In fact, if you have been running any project for your company, regardless of whether it is Agile, it is likely you have been involved in some form of experimentation and interpretation of end-user feedback. If you have been awarded a project by your client, you probably developed a proof of concept (POC) during the sales stage, in which you demonstrated how your proposed set of solutions would work for your client. And it is likely that during the development process of the POC, or even during the presentation, you got some form of feedback from your client and were resolute in presenting a better version. The client usually provides guidelines to the requirements and later comments on the proposed solution.

So if that concept is not new, what are all the bells and whistles regarding design thinking, and when does Agile come into play?

Agile's key concepts

Before we jump into design thinking, let's review a few concepts that various Agile frameworks promote:

Customer collaboration

"Customer collaboration over contract negotiation" is part of the Agile Manifesto. Radical as it might have seemed, Agile put the customer, not your solution, at the heart of its ideology. Agile states that we are building a solution for our customer. Therefore, it is important that we work with our customer to achieve a better product, better overall customer satisfaction, a good product-to-market fit, and better product quality. Those goals are more important than negotiating requirements and scope. (You can realize direct financial benefits from being lenient with your client versus being strict, but I won't expand on the matter because it’s beyond the scope of this article.)

Customer engagement

Involve your customer throughout the product life cycle. Agile heavily emphasizes the prioritization of the backlog by considering priorities that matter to your client. Demonstrations and customer feedback (in Scrum) get the client directly involved in the solution. A minimal viable product and the feedback loop cycle — build, measure, pivot — are key concepts used in Lean start-up, which basically floats a weather balloon to test what the potential market reaction to your solution might be. After all, it is the customer who best knows the problem and whether your solution solves it.

Customer insight

Hold end-user interviews. Get out of the building and meet your customers where they would be using your product the most. Understand your customer before you invest effort in developing the solution. You might think you know the market best, but your assumptions could be narrowed down to a certain perspective.

Design thinking: The new Agile

So how does design thinking complement Agile? Design thinking reflects Agile principles by putting the customer at the center. It further complements Agile with the following:
  • Customer interviews happen before the solution is even conceptualized. There are key techniques that you can use to empathize with your customer, such as interviews with the group, individuals, or experts from your target market. These help you better understand the problem, and rather than find a market for your solution, you build a solution for your market.
  • To the above, add customer immersion, silent observation, peer observation, and a-day-in-the-life techniques whereby you or your representative immerse yourselves in your client's universe. See what they see throughout the day, what problems they face, and what current resolutions they find to solve them. This is done in a noninvasive manner to get the most authentic, true-to-life reaction from your customers and to see which channels they would use.
  • The ideation process follows problem discovery. We brainstorm and try to envision the problem and how we can solve it. It is a good practice to present to your original interviewees the solution in the form of a prototype. The "design" in design thinking takes the form of visualization, because nothing beats a visual or physical prototype over an abstract idea. Draw it, prototype it as a high-level concept, and make it in any shape or form that would represent the real solution. The strength in today’s tools, such as Axure and Invision, lies in their ability to quickly create a high-quality representation of the final product without the effort of actually running through the entire software development life cycle.
  • It is important to not fall in love with your solution, as many do. How often do you hear sales and marketing people describe the greatness of a certain product, its robust nature, and the many years of product development and investment that went into making it? To customers, there is only one criterion: Does this solution solve a problem they have? If it does, they will likely be willing to pay for it. If it does not, they will likely look for a better fit elsewhere. Therefore, product-to-market fit is important. The quick solution we prototyped earlier can be replaced or further enhanced to iterate to a better solution.
  • Another key idea that design thinking promotes is to have a multidisciplinary and diverse team that can look at a problem from various perspectives. This is similar in concept to having an autonomous and self-empowered Agile team, capable of developing the solution themselves.
Once we find the best solution for the target market identified earlier, we can evaluate product profitability and revenue streams versus the cost structure (i.e., the costs of making the product, operations, support, and marketing, among others), identify our margins, and then go through the typical product life cycle (Scrum, Lean, SAFe, etc.).

I have only scratched the surface of design thinking here. We rely heavily on design thinking at IBM, and there are informational resources at IBM Design Thinking and also at the Human-Centered Design Toolkit.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4 (1 ratings)


Ravindra Thakur, CSM, 1/25/2017 1:49:06 AM
I do agree with your thoughts. Somehow the Agile is adopted popularly but as a process, whereas the 4 Core values and 12 principals of Agile Manifesto were defined to stress on a shift from Process to People those including customer, end user and the team.

This gap can be fulfilled by a smart scrum master or an agile coach with the help of Design thinking by wisely choosing the right methods at right time and in a right event.

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