Agile VS Design Thinking: Similarities, Differences, and Using Them Together

Business owners, product managers, and developers are always looking for the best strategies to create the ideal customer experience.

Modern approaches to the development process enable businesses to effectively fulfill customer needs. The most popular approaches adopted by businesses are design thinking and the Agile methodology.

These two methods have revolutionized how businesses approach the development process. They both focus on creating products for users by sharing new ideas, gathering customer feedback, and encouraging team collaboration.

Although they’re similar, they have some key differences. In this article we’ll talk about the two methods, the similarities and differences between them, and how to combine them to achieve your business goals.

What is Agile Product Management?

Agile Product Management focuses on creating products tailored to end users by working in iterative sprints. It speeds up the development process and focuses teams on continuous improvement through the creation of a succession of working prototypes.

The Agile approach provides companies a flexible way of working, through self-organizing teams. It focuses on embracing change. It is based on the Agile Manifesto and the 12 principles of Agile

The core values of Agile state:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

What is Design Thinking in Product Management?

Design thinking is user-centered product design. It dates back to the 1950s. The Silicon Valley Design Consultancy introduced it to provide an innovative solution to creating user-focused products.

Design thinking focuses more on bringing potential solutions to complex problems. Through the sharing of new ideas, empathy, prototyping, and user feedback, design thinkers manage to create products that effectively target user needs.

Defining the Design Thinking Process

The design thinking process consists of five stages:

  • Empathize – When brainstorming potential solutions look at the product from the perspective of end-users
  • Define – Note down problems and pain points that your audience may be facing
  • Ideate – Imagine, challenge assumptions and generate ideas for the development process
  • Prototype – Experiment with the different solutions by creating a minimum viable product
  • Testing – Test prototypes with users, gather feedback, and iterate the design as needed

This process helps people align their business goals with users’ preferences to create high-value products.

What are the Similarities Between Agile and Design Thinking

Focuses on User Needs and Feedback

Both the Agile approach and design thinking value end users and create products centered around them. They both research user needs to understand their pain points and rely on user feedback when improving a product.

Embrace Change

The philosophies behind Agile and design thinking are similar. Both encourage managers to view changing circumstances positively rather than focusing on the fear of a product becoming obsolete. Through constant iteration, development teams prepare for change and take a flexible approach when thinking about the production process.

Managed Through an Iterative Process

Both the Agile approach and design thinking give companies a flexible way to work and enable them to create better products faster; however, great products can’t be made in extremely short deadlines, which is why these two approaches call for constant iteration of the process. With each new version, businesses can fine-tune the overall product as issues arise, thus continually improving the product.

Extensive Testing of the Product

The key element with both approaches is continual testing. Extensively testing the product leads to discovering what is and is not working and how to better improve the user experience.

Agile projects are executed in sprints usually of about two weeks. The final phase of each sprint consists of testing the product. After each test, the team gathers user feedback and includes it in the next sprint, which builds on the previous one, and improves the product in an iterative fashion.

Design thinking uses testing in the same manner. It tests and validates ideas that may lead to innovation and identifies the best solution to solve user problems.

Encourage Collaboration and Teamwork

Successful Agile and design thinking approaches put team collaboration at the top of their priority lists. Having a strong bond between teams that understand, trust, and value each other is crucial for success with these two approaches.Both project management methodologies bring together the entire team to carry out tasks like brainstorming, conducting user research, prototyping, and testing. This constant communication between team members improves productivity, collaboration, and the work culture.

What are the Differences Between Agile and Design Thinking

Used for Different Purposes

The Agile development process focuses on creating solutions to predefined problems in a short time frame. It relies on quick feedback to rapidly iterate the design to better suit user needs.

Companies use design thinking to find the right problems and accurately map out user stories to help teams make well-informed decisions. It provides them with a guide and gives them an idea of what to work on to better influence the user journey.

Target Different Stages of the Development Process

Design thinking and Agile tend to focus on different stages of the development process

Agile focuses on solving problems as efficiently as possible. Teams make changes to the product as problems arise. Agile helps the project manager optimize the development process by effectively delivering products in shorter time frames.

On the other hand, design thinking focuses on the pre-planning stage, before the team begins to build. With this approach, product managers hope to address any problems preemptively, unlike Agile, which addresses the problems throughout the development cycle.

Using and Collecting User Feedback

Another difference between the two is how and when user feedback is integrated into the product. It’s true that both Agile and design leverage feedback to improve the product; however, design thinking and Agile have contrasting practices.

When using an Agile approach, a team builds a minimal product first and then releases it for customers to test. Product teams then learn how customers interact with the product to gather feedback. Agile relies heavily on user feedback to continually improve a product.

With design thinking, the process is reversed. Product teams first learn about their users, research user needs and problems, and then find creative ways of solving problems. Design thinking uses feedback to repeat the process until there is a clear idea of what users want.

Can Agile and Design Thinking Be Used Together

Design thinking and the Agile methodology may lead to innovative solutions and better collaboration. 

Although they have some similarities and differences, businesses don’t need to choose between the two. As both approaches focus on different stages of the project, they complement each other. 

Design thinking and Agile can be used together to create user-centric products and increase the efficiency of the business.

Challenges when Combining Agile and Design Thinking,

Of course, no good methodology comes without drawbacks. Since both design thinking and Agile may be new to some project managers, implementing the two together may lead to some difficulties.

Difficult to Determine the Right Strategy

Time-constrained tasks may require an increased focus on Agile processes to deliver the product faster. This would prevent product managers from incorporating design thinking into the production process as it takes longer for development to start.

There may be other times where design thinking may prompt product managers to get the product optimized the first time round and reduce iterations. But, Agile teams may be overwhelmed by adding customer feedback at the start of the sprint rather than incrementing and improving as they go.

When combining the two strategies, start slow and first explore low-risk, high-value options. As product teams mature and understand the process better they can start implementing the two together effectively.

Longer Time Taken on Complex Problems

No matter which approach you choose, they both require time and effort to execute. Agile teams may not be familiar with design thinking and design thinkers may not be fond of the Agile methodology. 

Also, increasingly complex requirements and changes can lead to long delays and increasing issues over time.

Since both methods rely on iteration to create user-centric products, the process may take longer. Product managers may be confused about when to stop the design thinking process and start development or may poorly define the definition of “done.”

To tackle this, development teams need to work with a managerial role such as the Scrum Master to plan simple strategies. This could mean breaking the process into smaller chunks, reducing sprint times, and iterating user feedback over time.

Project managers could start slow by creating hybrid sprints that incorporate part of design thinking and Agile. This can help teams gradually progress and learn to adapt to the process rather than avoid it.

Keeping Track of User Stories

Agile teams are familiar with building first and improving later. When these teams implement design thinking, they may notice an inaccurate portrayal of their user stories. Since design thinking puts an increased focus on plotting stories from the end user perspective, the Agile approach may need to be revised to incorporate this shift.

To tackle this you should track user stories with a united design and development team. Creating cross-functional teams like this helps teams make better decisions, be more productive, and may lead to innovation.

Balancing Between the Design Process and the Development Team

When first implementing the two approaches, it can be difficult determining how much time to allocate for design thinking before development.

To strike a balance between the design team and developers, effective product management focuses on educating teams on the problem statement and how they should use design thinking to build an effective framework to work together.

How to Combine Agile Development and Design Thinking to Streamline the Production Process

  • State your core values and beliefs. With design thinking, you’ll be prompted to empathize with end users and look at problems from their perspectives. This can lead to breakthroughs in understanding your users better and will lead the design team to ask useful questions, gather valuable customer feedback, analyze the data, and create an accurate problem statement.
  • Prioritize the most important tasks. This is where design thinking and Agile come together. Use design thinking to ask noteworthy questions, brainstorm, and ideate. Then incorporate Agile by diving deeper into the identified problems. This can lead to defining a framework to provide solutions, which are subject to change.
  • Engage in product experimentation. Design thinking should help collect user feedback to create products better fitted to user needs. You can leverage Agile practices to build dynamic feature areas quickly through sprints and test your minimum viable product.
  • Test, Improve, Repeat. After the release of your initial product, you can iterate the process thanks to Agile’s flexible approach to project management. After testing your product with users and gathering more feedback, you can increment the sprint to improve the product further until a final product emerges.

Conclusion

Agile and design thinking are popular approaches to product management. These methodologies have been used by the top guns of the industry including Netflix, Spotify, Uber, and many more.

It is important to know the difference between them to use them to their full potential. 

Business owners can use the two together rather than implementing them separately to take advantage of design thinking and Agile. Both methodologies complement each other nicely and can serve as stepping stones to drive growth and help in scaling operations.