Agile and Design Thinking — How Can They Go Well Together? (2023)

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by Karri Ojanen

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  • April 25, 2023

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Agile and Design Thinking — How Can They Go Well Together? (1)

Agile and Design Thinking are, as buzzwords, commonplace in today’s corporate world. But what happens when an organization must blend the two, especially when it is on a larger scale? The two did not originate from the same source, but they are both essential to help companies move forward.

Agile is a project management and software development approach that emerged in response to the rigid, inflexible waterfall model. Agile aims to provide organizations with a more responsive and effective approach to development. The Manifesto for Agile Software Development came out of a meeting between seventeen software developers in 2001.

Besides the challenges that Agile’s aimed at solving, there’s another one that organizations face: how to ensure that they are focusing on the right things that provide value? The team may learn Agile to build quickly and effectively, but if they don’t build the right solution to the right problems, they fail.

When asked how it helps organizations to build value by focusing on the right solutions, Agile sticks to its guns and explains this will be achieved through iterative and incremental development, customer collaboration, continuous delivery, and adaptability. In reality, that’s too vague. Many an Agile team build first and test second, thinking they can improve the solutions as they go, which builds up risk and may damage the customer relationship before gaps are filled and problems with the first release get fixed. For customer collaboration, Agile fails to provide tangible strategies, approaches and methodology. Teams that have not sufficiently co-created and collaborated with stakeholders including customers before will not learn how to do it by beating Agile into their heads.

This is where Design Thinking comes in. Design Thinking helps organizations identify the right, most potential challenges to solve and ideate and test solutions to address those problems. Unlike Agile, which came from the frustrations and challenges caused by waterfall project management, Design Thinking came from the frustrations and challenges of ineffective innovation.

How can we successfully blend Design Thinking and Agile? It takes more than just a desire to do so. While they share a similar mindset of collaboration and communication, each has a distinct perspective. Design Thinking wants to understand why a challenge exists and what could be under it, and how it drives human behavior. Agile wants to understand how to build a solution and what resources are required to provide value.

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)is intended to guide enterprises in scaling lean and agile practices. In 2019 when SAFe 5.0 was introduced, it added mentions of Design Thinking and customer centricity.With the recent release of SAFe 6.0, the question of how to effectively integrate customer-centricity into Agile methodology remains unresolved.

(Video) Agile vs Design Thinking – What is the difference?

Design Thinkers approach problem-solving by breaking it down into two distinct stages: the ‘problem space’ and the ‘solution space’. This involves taking time to redefine and sharpen the problem so that the solutions developed are real and validated. To represent these two spaces, a common approach is to use the ‘Double Diamond’ model. The first diamond involves zooming out and gaining a deep understanding of the customer, their context, and their needs (diverging), before formulating a clear and delineated problem statement (converging). In the second diamond, the focus shifts to the solution space where ideation and testing of different solutions take place (diverging) before selecting the best solution (converging) in the end.

Agile and Design Thinking — How Can They Go Well Together? (2)

The Double Diamond design thinking process (Adopted from the Design Council)Source

SAFe incorporates the principles of Design Thinking’s second diamond, the ‘solution space’, such as iterating, paper prototyping, and seeking customer feedback as quickly as possible, by merging it withthe continuous exploration cycle. The continuous exploration cycle is a critical component of the SAFe methodology, beginning with the identification of business opportunities from various sources, including customer feedback, market research, or internal stakeholders. Herein lies one key difference between SAFe and Design Thinking — the latter always emphasizes the significance of understanding human behavior and customer goals as a starting point. In contrast, if the organization solely relies on input from internal stakeholders to determine viable business opportunities, it may overlook the critical customer perspective at a crucial stage of continuous exploration.

The remaining critical steps of the continuous exploration cycle involve detailed exploration and evaluation of identified business opportunities using specific criteria. Once a viable opportunity is identified, a business case is defined, and the project moves through review and approval to execution. These steps have significant overlap with the double-diamond approach of Design Thinking. However, in practice, many organizations lack historical knowledge and awareness of design principles, leading to potential risks. These risks can include business opportunities being pushed through without a thorough discovery process into the needs and challenges of customers, employees, and other end-users. Additionally, many organizations lack an understanding of effective brainstorming and prototyping methodologies, and their evaluation criteria may lack a strong focus on end-user/customer perspectives.

To successfully merge Agile and Design Thinking, we must first understand that Design Thinking is also Agile in its iterative, co-creative, and collaborative approach. Agile is not just about moving quickly, but about moving nimbly and accurately. Applying too strict of a cadence and speed to the process of trying to build the right thing right could have adverse effects. Design Thinking doesn’t fight Agile at its core, nor does it hit the brakes for the sake of it. It allows the company and team to dig deeper, reflect, take a step back, and conduct additional research to make sense of the bigger picture.

In conclusion, while Agile and Design Thinking may not have started out together, they can work together seamlessly. Organizations that can blend both approaches effectively will benefit from the flexibility, collaboration, and customer focus that they bring.

If you work in an organization that defines itself as Agile and you want to get started on Design Thinking but don’t yet have a great understanding of it at the top, a good step to try at the teams’ level can be Design Sprints. It’s known to many organizations, yet still new to others. ADesign Sprint is a specific activity where a cross-functional team gets together to collaborate fast but with intention.In a Design Sprint, you get to share and understand the context and develop and test ideas. The team starts with a big problem and ends up with a clear direction, which can be used to generate the user stories and tasks to feed the backlog for Agile. Design doesn’t start and end in the Design Sprint, but running a Design Sprint can help you ensure you follow the principles of Design Thinking albeit in a condensed shape.

Agile and Design Thinking — How Can They Go Well Together? (3)

Photo byUX IndonesiaonUnsplash

  • Agile and Iterative Process, Conversational Design, Design, Design Theory

Karri Ojanen, A design leader with over 25 years of international experience, Karri began his journey in Finland and has since lent his expertise in UX and Service Design to organizations in the Middle East, the United States, and Canada. Currently, Karri serves as a Design Coach at Sun Life, helping bridge the gap between design aspirations and practical implementation. He also instructs UX and Service Design programs at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.

Ideas In Brief

  • The article explores how organizations can merge Agile and Design Thinking to create a more flexible, collaborative, and customer-focused approach to problem-solving.
  • The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) incorporates Design Thinking principles into the Agile continuous exploration cycle, but it also has some key differences.
  • To successfully blend Agile and Design Thinking, organizations must recognize that Design Thinking is also Agile in its iterative, co-creative, and collaborative approach, and applying too strict of a cadence and speed to the process could be counterproductive.

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Agile and Design Thinking — How Can They Go Well Together? (7)


Agile and Design Thinking — How Can They Go Well Together? ›

Use design thinking to identify the right problems to solve, and then use Agile to iteratively build solutions to solve those problems. Design thinking brings a strong user focus while Agile is an excellent way to incrementally deliver solutions.

What do design thinking and agile have in common? ›

Speed of result delivery, iteration of stages, and general agility are important in both agile and design thinking. Both methodologies make use of repeated improvements to build a better product. This means agile and design thinking are iterative and repetitive, and encourage teams to engage in product experimentation.

How does an agile relate to a good design? ›

Agile design helps create great products

When UX design is integrated naturally into the Agile process, it helps to ensure that the product team will accommodate the needs of end users and create products that will be valuable for them as efficiently as possible.

What is the best way for design to integrate into the agile process? ›

Prototypes are the best way to try out more ideas simultaneously. And we iterate them. It is easier to make changes on a prototype than a pixel perfect design, or a running code. The prototypes are tested before we create the detailed design and send it to the programming phase.

Is design thinking a part of agile? ›

Design thinking is an agile, iterative process for design and innovation that centers users' desires and needs, and enables your company to pivot as the industry changes and technology evolves. Design thinking acknowledges that there isn't one way to solve a problem.

Is agile Scrum the same as design thinking? ›

SCRUM is a framework for developing and sustaining, i.e. continuously improving, complex products. Design Thinking is a user-centric innovation method/ toolset for solving complex problems. The complexity involved in both topics explains why only few people truly understand them and use them in an appropriate way.

Is design thinking the same as agility? ›

Both stress the importance of the end user's perspective, prototyping, multiple iterations, and small feedback loops. However, the agile approach focuses primarily on building the best possible solution—the 'how' part. Design thinking is better suited to finding the right problem to solve, answering the 'why' part.

Is design thinking agile or waterfall? ›

That said, with an agile mindset, design thinking techniques can be applied within each phase of the waterfall methodology. For example, in the requirements phase of a waterfall project, the elements of design thinking's empathise, define and ideate can readily be adopted.

Where does design happen in agile? ›

Where does design work belong? Either before the first sprint, or on the first sprint, and possibly in every subsequent sprint. Some teams will have a period of time before the first sprint where some of these decisions are made.

What is agile working in design? ›

Agile working is all about creating a flexible and productive environment, so office design must focus on integrating that flexibility via a variety of work settings and ensuring staff have the complete freedom and flexibility to work where they want when they want.

What is design thinking an agile method for innovation? ›

Design thinking using agile methodology is an iterative process that seeks the user understanding, formulation of challenge assumptions and problems redefinition in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with the initial level of understanding.

What is the agile approach to doing design early in a project? ›

In essence, the Agile approach comes down to this:

Instead of making an extensive project plan beforehand with prior research and designs, you will immediately start working. You build part of the project in a short time frame (iterations, timeboxes or in Scrum terminology: sprints) of about 1 to 4 weeks.

What are the 4 W's of design thinking? ›

The methodology I've found most successful, has been introduced by prof Jeanne Liedtka from Darden Business School and identifies four stages: What is?, What if?, What wows?, and What works?

What are 5 stages of design thinking? ›

The short form of the design thinking process can be articulated in five steps or phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

Is design part of Sprint agile? ›

A Design Sprint is a fast-paced, agile approach to product design. Essentially it's a five-day process that allows a multidisciplinary team to develop and test new ideas using a series of highly-effective Design Thinking exercises.

Is design done in agile projects? ›

The Agile design methodology implies that designers work alongside other team members (developers, marketing specialists, etc.) on a permanent basis. This helps to develop a sense of ownership for the project and build trust among team members.

Is design thinking part of Lean Six Sigma? ›

Design thinking uses a similar process to that of lean six sigma, but it is known for being more creative. The main core of design thinking is empathy, or being considerate of the customer's needs and pain points.

Can creative thinking be agile? ›

Encouraging creative thinking in Agile methodology will be key when it comes to team members' performance, teamwork, efficiency, better communication, and excellence in the final results.

What are the three types of design thinking? ›

The Three Phases of Design Thinking: Immersion, Ideation and Prototyping. The Design Thinking approach have changed the way thousands of companies think (and do) innovation. Start your transformation from 3 basic standards: Immersion, Ideation and Prototyping.

Is design thinking part of Scrum? ›

Design Thinking is a complementary practice in Scrum, not a competing one.

Is design thinking a tool or mindset? ›

What is Design Thinking? Design thinking is a mindset. It is an iterative process wherein you attempt to comprehend your users, question assumptions, redefine challenges and develop novel solutions which you can prototype and test.

Can one do waterfall and still be agile? ›

Waterfall is not as flexible as Agile because each phase needs to be fully completed before moving on to the next phase. The project is also planned out ahead of time, making this management system ideal for teams with a clear vision of where they are headed from start to finish.

What is better than Agile methodology? ›

Waterfall works best for projects completed in a linear fashion and does not allow going back to a prior phase. Agile focuses on adaptive, simultaneous workflows. Agile methods break projects into smaller, iterative periods. Kanban is primarily concerned with process improvements.

Is design thinking a methodology or a framework? ›

Design thinking is a methodology which provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It's extremely useful when used to tackle complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown—because it serves to understand the human needs involved, reframe the problem in human-centric ways, create numerous ideas in.

How does design fit into scrum? ›

Scrum includes some guidance for planning, estimation, requirements definition, testing and project statusing. For the subject of design, Scrum advocates “design by discovery,” or “emergent design.” That is, as each series of functions is developed, the design emerges.

What are the 5 steps of the agile design lifecycle? ›

As an example, the full Agile software development lifecycle includes the concept, inception, construction, release, production, and retirement phases.

What is the difference between agile and design? ›

While Agile is an approach to problem solving, design thinking is an approach to problem finding. It calls for a high degree of empathy and understanding of end users, and an iterative process of developing new ideas, challenging assumptions, and redefining problems.

Why is agile design important? ›

Why is Agile so popular? Probably the most critical aspect of this methodology is that it's iterative and evolutionary. It allows teams to improve the product with each iteration. More importantly, teams can decide what improvements need to be made on each short iteration.

Why agile is best for innovation? ›

An agile approach is all about speed and working quickly but efficiently to out-innovate the competition. Overcome the fear of failure. Encourage experimentation and do not be afraid to fail frequently; agile innovation allows the constant addressing of impediments quickly and cheaply to minimise risk and disruption.

What are the 3 key elements of Agile methodology? ›

Conclusion. Not much separates the 3 key factors of an Agile methodology from that of any other business initiative. Teamwork, communications, and metrics are what drive business projects forward. These project management foundations are used to successfully run agile teams and achieve business goals.

What are the 4 principles of agile? ›

The four Agile Manifesto values are:
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. ...
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation. ...
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. ...
  • Responding to change over following a plan.
Mar 18, 2022

What are the 6 phases of Agile methodology? ›

The Agile software development life cycle is the structured series of stages that a product goes through as it moves from beginning to end. It contains six phases: concept, inception, iteration, release, maintenance, and retirement.

What are the 3 most important elements of design thinking? ›

There are five key elements of the Design Thinking process:
  • Human-centered. If you don't understand the person who will be using the thing you're trying to create, it simply won't work. ...
  • Creative and playful. ...
  • Iterative. ...
  • Collaborative. ...
  • Prototype driven.
Nov 2, 2020

What are the 7 elements of design thinking? ›

The elements of design are the fundamental aspects of any visual design which include shape, color, space, form, line, value, and texture. Graphic designers use the elements of design to create an image that can convey a certain mood, draw the eye in a certain direction, or evoke a number of feelings.

What are the 3 characteristics of design thinking? ›

Ideation –challenge assumptions, storm ideas, give free reign to innovation. Prototyping – create a solution that solves at least part of the problem. Testing – test the prototype with users and gather feedback.

What are the 6 principles of design thinking? ›

Within these larger buckets fall the 6 phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement.

What is the biggest asset of design thinking? ›

The biggest asset of design thinking is its human-centric feelings and playful thinking. The courage to try something new and creative, the curiosity for other people's lives, the cooperation with others is all that it takes to understand.

What is the most important skill of a design thinking leader? ›

Empathy. Empathy is the most important instrument in a leader's toolbox, according to Simon Sinek. It's about caring for the well-being of human beings beyond the business deliverables. Key to understanding your users in design thinking, empathy is essential when it comes to customers or colleagues.

Who is responsible for design in Scrum? ›

Since agile teams are, by design, flexible and responsive, it is the responsibility of the product owner to ensure that they are delivering the most value. The business is represented by the product owner who tells the development what is important to deliver.

Are sprints agile or waterfall? ›

Agile project management includes iterative backlog management, sprints, reflection, iteration, and more sprints. Each Agile sprint typically lasts two to four weeks. Each sprint goes through the following phases: First, the product owner organizes the product backlog.

Who creates sprints in agile? ›

The scrum team decides what can be done in the coming sprint and what they will do during the sprint to make that happen. The How – The development team plans the work necessary to deliver the sprint goal.

What is an example of agile design? ›

Examples of Agile Methodology. The most popular and common examples are Scrum, eXtreme Programming (XP), Feature Driven Development (FDD), Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM), Adaptive Software Development (ASD), Crystal, and Lean Software Development (LSD).

Is design thinking linear or not? ›

Design Thinking is A Non-linear Process.

Who is behind design thinking? ›

Cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon was the first to mention design as a way of thinking in his 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial. He then went on to contribute many ideas throughout the 1970s which are now regarded as principles of design thinking.

What is Six Sigma in design thinking? ›

The essence of Six Sigma, non-statistically speaking, is the DMAIC process, which stands for Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control. This iterative process relies on systematically shaving off waste from the system, resulting in a leaner process, with hopefully a better outcome.

Is agile a methodology or mindset? ›

Agile is a mindset, philosophy or way of thinking that is comprised of a set of principles and values (as outlined in the Agile manifesto). It serves as an over-arching umbrella for practices and frameworks that embrace those values and principles, such as Scrum and Kanban.

Can one person do agile? ›

Whether you're a freelancer or a solopreneur who works independently, or a member of a traditional team looking to get more out of your workday, Agile can help. You've probably heard about Scrum teams or Agile teams, but the reality is that individuals can get all the benefits of Agility, even if they're on their own .

Can you use agile for all projects? ›

However, Agile can ultimately be used on almost any large scale project in any industry. Any of these project teams can benefit from using Agile: Teams handling fast-changing deliverables, such as technology products. Teams working on projects that evolve or do not have clear scope and requirements at the beginning.

Which of the following statements are correct agile and design thinking are same? ›

Answer: The correct answer is Design Thinking is about Product Devlopment; Agile Manifesto is about Software Devlopment and Design Thinking is finding the right things and Agile is about building the right things.

Which are commonalities between design methodologies and agile software engineering? ›

There are similarities between the design thinking (DT) and agile application development methodologies (Lindberg et al. 2011; Hirschfeld et al. 2011) . The core features of both approaches are 'user centricity', 'iterative learning and development processes', and 'extensive team communication' (Lindberg et al.

What do all agile have in common? ›

All agile frameworks have the following features in common: consistent delivery, straightforward strategy, lightweight strategy, incremental and iterative development, etc. Agile is a general concept for software development that emphasizes the importance of quick, frequent iterations to satisfy customers.

What is the relation between design and design thinking? ›

Design Thinking is a mindset. A mind that is set on creating new and useful things. The Design Process is a set of steps one follows. It is a collection of steps that are specific to an individual or organization and its unique needs and built to increase the production of invention.

What is one of the tools associated with design thinking agile? ›

Empathy maps [1] are a design thinking tool that promotes customer identification by helping teams develop a deep, shared understanding of others (Figure 4). They enable teams to imagine what a specific persona is thinking, feeling, hearing, and seeing as they use the product.

What is the connection between design thinking Lean methodology and Agile methodology? ›

Design Thinking is how we explore and solve problems; Lean is our framework for testing our beliefs and learning our way to the right outcomes; and Agile is how we adapt to changing conditions with software.

What is the difference between Agile methodology and design thinking? ›

Agile is a method to solve predefined problems, while design thinking focuses on finding the right problems to solve. This is an important distinction, as design thinking provides users with a way to make better choices about the journeys they should follow, not just how best to get there.

Is design done in Agile projects? ›

The Agile design methodology implies that designers work alongside other team members (developers, marketing specialists, etc.) on a permanent basis. This helps to develop a sense of ownership for the project and build trust among team members.

What are 4 characteristics of agile? ›

Here are 14 Agile characteristics that can help your project management succeed:
  • Continuous adaption. Agile project management favors change. ...
  • Transparency. ...
  • Listening capability. ...
  • Collaboration. ...
  • Efficient communication. ...
  • Customer satisfaction. ...
  • Fast delivery times. ...
  • Sequential approach.
Feb 3, 2023

What are the three main elements of agile? ›

Conclusion. Not much separates the 3 key factors of an Agile methodology from that of any other business initiative. Teamwork, communications, and metrics are what drive business projects forward. These project management foundations are used to successfully run agile teams and achieve business goals.

What are three common agile practices? ›

Best Practices for Agile Teams
  • Collaborate with the customer. ...
  • Work together daily. ...
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. ...
  • Convey information face-to-face. ...
  • Form self-organizing teams. ...
  • Reflect on how teams can become more effective.

What is design thinking a combination of? ›

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.

What is the main point of design thinking? ›

The main value of design thinking is that it offers a defined process for innovation. While trial and error is a good way to test and experiment what works and what doesn't, it's often time-consuming, expensive, and ultimately ineffective.


1. Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking
(Coding Tech)
2. Design Thinking vs Agile: Don’t Choose, Unite
(Eleken – SaaS Design Agency)
3. Lean, Agile, & Design Thinking by Jeff Gothelf at Mind the Product Singapore 2019
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4. Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking vs... YOU
5. Design Thinking - simpleshow explains agile methods
6. Design Thinking - Auspicious Agile
(John Okoro)


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