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February 3, 2022

  

 mins to read

Design Thinking vs Agile: Don’t Choose, Unite

You may have heard the terms ‘design thinking’ and ‘Agile’ a lot by now. It seems like every other startup or fast-growing organization is talking about how they’ve adopted one of the methods and how it has transformed everything, from their company culture to the way they approach product development. 

It sounds great, however, sometimes people misuse the terms and have trouble figuring out where to draw the line between the two. Some have even suggested that Agile and design thinking are the same thing. But is it really so?

Eleken is a design agency for SaaS businesses. We won’t exaggerate by saying, our team consists of Agile designers and design thinkers focused on products that users love. In this article, we are going to put design thinking against Agile to explain what they are, compare their similarities and differences, and help you understand whether you could combine them.

What is Agile?

Image source: Stutterstock, Jesus Sanz

The Agile methodology came to the business world in the early 2000s. It was a call for all project managers and developers to become more flexible. 

Before Agile was born, project teams would negotiate the requirements for the future product in detail with a client or stakeholders. And only after specifications were set, the team would start working on the solution. The development cycle sometimes could take even a year or two. Changes were not desirable, as they intruded on the developing process and could slow it down even more. In the end, no one could guarantee that clients or users will be fully satisfied with the end-product.

Agile did not make projects immune to failures or mismanagement. But it provided more flexibility and responsiveness to market changes than traditional project management techniques.

Agile is a framework that focuses on iteration, flexibility, and adaptation to feedback. Instead of designing a perfect plan and executing it flawlessly, you make new decisions as the development goes and learn along the way. Agile helps to break down big projects into manageable chunks of work with the goal of delivering quick results. The main components of Agile include: requirements, planning, design, development, release, and result monitoring. 

Image source: Design Thinking and Scrum in the context of Digital Transformation

Agile has shifted attention from heavy documentation and development to ready software and most of all to people involved. While being more human-centered than older methodologies, Agile relies on values and principles stated in the Agile Manifesto and is implemented through certain practices. Sprints, daily standups, and retrospectives are all Agile practices that have become widely popular.

Image source: Agile Manifesto

The methodology has its roots in software development life cycles, and it's still most widely used in that field. Agile practices were adopted in such world-known companies as Microsoft, IBM, Lego, Lonely Planet, and many others.

Agile can be applied in any project, where the goal is to improve the development process and decrease time for product delivery. This is a thing to remember about Agile: it does not look for problems to solve, it deals with predefined problems and focuses on getting the job done as fast as possible

What is design thinking? 

Design thinking has been around since the 1950s, and it has been most popularized by its advocates at IDEO - the Silicon Valley design consultancy known for its offbeat, outside-the-box approach to innovation. 

We call it Design Thinking because the method takes its roots from the design field and because in a general sense, it still refers to the design of a solution. However, nowadays design thinking is applied to various project types. What's more, some of the world-known companies like Uber, Airbnb, Netflix, and the like appeared only thanks to design thinking.

Design thinking is a process that entails empathy and creativity in order to generate innovative solutions for complex problems, while also focusing on customer needs. User research plays a big role in uncovering insights about user needs (problems) and ensuring that their experience with the product is delightful. This is achieved through multiple cycles of prototyping.

The design thinking process consists of five phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. Each following phase goes from the previous one, and it's important to strictly follow the order. The whole design thinking process is about listening to users’ feedback and implementing changes for your solution based on the feedback. This creative method lets you ask the right questions and reveal the core of the problem you are trying to solve. Simply put, design thinking is a way of discovering and solving problems.


What differs design thinking from brainstorming or the scientific approach is that it is the most human-centric way to discover what users want. Wait, but Agile is also human-centric and focuses on delivering the product users want, isn’t it? Correct. Both methods are extremely user-oriented, even user-centric, yet they are not the same.

What is the difference between design thinking and Agile?

Comparing design thinking and Agile is like comparing apples to oranges - it’s pretty easy to notice that the two are different. Still, the biggest difference between design thinking and Agile is that they serve different purposes. 

Design thinking is a way to define the problem, while Agile helps to solve the problem in the most efficient way possible. In a more academic language, Agile is a process for delivering software of known value within a fixed timeline, whereas design thinking is a process for finding solutions to unarticulated problems.

What do design thinking and Agile have in common?

Despite having a different scope and execution, design thinking and Agile have some striking similarities:

  • Both methodologies are human-centered. However, there's a small difference still - design thinking focuses on users, while Agile’s focus is on the team developing the product.
  • Speed of result delivery, iteration of stages, and general agility are important for both Agile and design thinking. 
  • Both rely on testing. Agile projects are built early and often, constantly testing the result to see what's working and what isn’t. Testing is equally important for design thinking to validate new ideas and come up with a better solution.

Still, despite having a common ground, terms `Agile` and `design thinking` are not used interchangeably as we already learned. So the conclusion can be made that you have to think of what would be the best match for your project and just choose between the two methods. But wait, what if there's a way to use both Agile and design thinking?

Agile and design thinking: can they be friends?

There’s no need to pick exclusively Agile or design thinking. On the contrary, let Agile and design thinking complement each other and you’ll be surprised with great results.

A schematic example of how to combine Agile and design thinking


Choose what methodology fits best to a certain stage of your project. In the early stage when you are only shaping your idea, you definitely need a more creative and innovative approach. This is the best time for design thinking. Agile is most effective when the problem is already defined and needs fast and most effective implementation. There are also cases when design thinking is used in Agile development if the team is stuck over a complex problem and wants to create an advanced solution with users’ needs in mind. 

But it’s not the only way to mix design thinking and Agile. For example, design thinkers might use Agile methods in their work, like working in sprints, running retrospectives, and having daily check-ups and weekly planning meetings. This is especially effective when you implement design thinking to a bigger problem that needs more time to solve.  Agile teams can also use methods like user interviews or prototyping, which aren't exactly part of Agile processes, but are more typical for the design thinking method.

Let’s go back to IDEO, design thinking pioneer practitioners. IDEO never publicly stated they are Agile-driven, but a closer look at their work proves that the company applies Agile principles and practices while following the design thinking method.  For example, in their collaboration with Ford Motors, IDEO worked in cycles (sprints) that lasted 8-12 weeks long. After each such sprint there was a product review and testing, the team was in constant communication with the feature owner (read ‘product owner’). All this indicates that IDEO actually used Agile practices when designing a  solution for the client despite them being early adopters of the design thinking.

Usually, such a hybrid approach brings the best results, but you should mitigate certain risks before marrying Agile with design thinking.

Potential challenges in combining Agile and design thinking 

Design thinking and Agile methodology are great together, but nothing comes without challenges. If you haven’t used any of these methods before, it might be hard to get into the groove and change the old pattern you relied on. Our brain is very reluctant to change and will slip into old familiar problem-stating and solving patterns. 

If your team is already using design thinking or Agile it can also be challenging at first to introduce another approach. Agile has its own very strict rhythm and it can be hard to implement design thinking into an existing project that is already running. It may require a whole rethinking of what the team is doing.

It is a good idea to run the workshops on each methodology for the whole team, so everyone can better understand the principle of both design thinking and Agile . Make sure that the team is aligned around the common vision, it will help them to see the purpose of changes and adopt new approaches faster.

In the end, the discovery of the problem provided by design thinking and delivery of the solution backed up by Agile methodology will make your product impeccable. 

Conclusion 


In today’s fast-paced and highly competitive world, the pressure to deliver products that users will love has dramatically increased. But this crazy speed has taught companies how to use design thinking and be Agile. Thanks to these two methods, we can now discover the problem and solve it as quickly as possible. If you want to create an innovative solution and deliver it fast to the market, design thinking and Agile development are meant to be together for the sake of your product.

When you're interested in the topic and want to learn more, read our other article on ideation techniques in design thinking to unleash your team's creativity. And if you feel like you could use some help, our design team is ready to join up to implement your ideas with rocket speed. Contact us to discuss details.

Mariia Kasymova

Author

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