Agile by Design

Integrating Design Thinking and Agile Approaches Helps Organizations Find and Build the Right Customer-Focused Solution




Jacqui Speers, Accenture Digital UK, London, England

The agile manifesto’s first principle, after all, states that the top priority is satisfying the customer. Agile’s iterative approach lets project teams react to changes and challenges better, and deliver a finished product in a shorter time frame.

Getting to the end faster, however, is only a good thing if it’s the right destination to begin with. That’s why organizations increasingly are pairing design thinking and agile processes to identify the right solution—and then build a better product. A process for generating creative solutions, design thinking has been around for decades. As organizations look to innovate—often while growing into new markets or sectors—in recent years, more have turned to design thinking to light the way.

Design thinking is essentially about user empathy and developing a solution based on that, says Bob Tarne, PMI-ACP, PMP, executive project manager at PMI Global Executive Council member IBM, Lexington, Kentucky, USA. “It’s a matter of, to what degree do you really try to understand what your user is doing? Design thinking is saying: Don’t just have a half-hour conversation with your user to say, ’Do you want pink or blue?’ Have a conversation about what challenges them in their day-to-day work.”

Understanding the problem paves the way for executing more creative, useful solutions through agile processes—in other words, delivering the true customer satisfaction on which agile is built.

“Design thinking increases the potential that you will build something your customers want and will buy,” says Susan Kuypers, director, design thinking, design and co-innovation center, SAP Labs, Palo Alto, California, USA. (SAP is a Council member as well.) “We know about lone geniuses and startups who can do this. Design thinking decreases the risk of building something that fails. It allows the rest of us to approach that ability to build something that becomes a success in the market.”

“Design thinking increases the potential that you will build something your customers want and will buy.”

—Susan Kuypers, SAP Labs, Palo Alto, California, USA



Teams successfully using agile approaches might question the need to incorporate design thinking into their process. That type of reaction is exactly why they might need to integrate the two, says Jacqui Speers, digital solution designer (design thinking and user experience), Accenture Digital UK, London, England. (Accenture is also a Council member.)

“In my mind, agile is a product development approach that has helped the digital world cast off the shackles of waterfall,” she says. “But it has become rigid, constrained and a burden to those who just want to ship clever stuff.”

Perhaps the most oft-cited example of the perils of rigid thinking is Henry Ford’s (possibly apocryphal) comment that if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have said “faster horses.” Design thinking pushes teams to think bigger—how do we get people to places faster?—rather than working toward preconceived solutions based on narrow assumptions.


“If you focus too much on the solution, you’re going to get one solution. If you focus more on the problem, then you get many more solutions.”

—Bob Tarne, PMI-ACP, PMP, IBM, Lexington, Kentucky, USA

“If you focus too much on the solution, you’re going to get one solution,” says Mr. Tarne. “If you focus more on the problem, then you get many more solutions.”

Design thinking also can push teams to rethink the way they study the problem, he says. As an example, he describes how a project team trying to improve the way hotel lobbies operate built a complete mock-up of a lobby to illuminate all of its functions and activities. That gave team members a more holistic perspective from which to create solutions.

Inspiration can come from unlikely places both inside and outside the organization, adds Ms. Speers, who advocates highly cross-functional teams.

“The team members in a design thinking workshop need to come from disparate backgrounds for maximum creative thinking. Often your most innovative ideas will not come from your sector or professional field,” she says. “For example, an actor, scientist, engineer, academic, schoolteacher and stay-at-home parent can give wider, more unexpected views on the problem at hand. The output likely will be better than what comes out of a purely internal team, even with external consultation or facilitation.”


A project using both design thinking and agile almost always will be more heavily weighted toward the former during early phases, when the focus is on defining the problem. But even after the project moves into prototyping and testing, there’s plenty of room for overlap of the two approaches.


“Team members in a design thinking workshop need to come from disparate backgrounds for maximum creative thinking.”

—Jacqui Speers

“Once you start focusing on a specific solution or specific design, then you can move more to the agile,” says Mr. Tarne. “But it’s not ’spend the first two weeks of the project doing design thinking and then we’re on to agile.’ Keep some of the principles that are common between the two of them: prototypes, iterations, getting lots of feedback, working with the user.”

Ms. Kuypers’ team uses design thinking during the discovery and design phases of projects. The multidisciplinary team starts by interviewing customer stakeholders (such as business and IT decision-makers) and end users. The results drive a design thinking workshop with the customer.

“A critical part of our strategy is to require participation from both IT and business,” she says. “The output of the workshop is consensus among the customer decision-makers and their end users on the must-have features needed to solve their problem.”

A major focus of the workshop is crafting a group of design thinking problem statements, she says. For example, “How might we design a way to provide users with the capabilities they need to accomplish their goal?”

Design Thinking 101

At its core, design thinking is a creative process that begins by thoughtfully defining the problem to be solved. It can be used in any industry to drive innovative solutions.

  • Encourages team members to be open-minded and pitch wild ideas
  • Helps project managers find solutions that might not have been visible before
  • Emphasizes user experience to ensure solutions will improve the end product or process
The design thinking process can vary but typically includes five phases:

1. Empathize with the end user through immersion, interaction and observation.

2. Define the problem that needs to be solved. Frame the definition in a way that allows for inventive solutions.

3. Ideate possible solutions. Generate a wide variety of ideas and encourage team members to judge them all equally.

4. Prototype the best ideas. Interact with them in physical form, experience what works and what doesn’t.

5. Test the prototypes with users. Observe and collect feedback, then use this to refine ideas.

Source: Stanford University Institute of Design

After the workshop, Ms. Kuypers documents the output for the engineering team, which then uses a hybrid of agile and design thinking methods to develop the proof of concept. It’s an approach that she says works well during an eight- to 12-week proof of concept period, during which the team is developing early iterations of a product.

“From agile, they used the product backlog and sprint plans. From design thinking, they used frequent check-in calls with the customer to get feedback and iterate on design and features,” she says. “Often the customer freed up some of their resources, who would sit with our team and participate in development. The team almost always was able to build in some ’wow’ factor for the customer this way.”

“Keep some of the principles that are common between [agile and design thinking]: prototypes, iterations, getting lots of feedback, working with the user.”

—Bob Tarne, PMI-ACP, PMP


As any agilista who has guided teams or an organization through the transition from waterfall knows, change isn’t always well-received. Ms. Kuypers trains team members in both agile and design thinking methods, and then lets them develop their own hybrid model as a group.

Ms. Speers advises a specific approach for easing agile teams’ transition into the world of design thinking: bring together representatives from each group that will be contributing to the project (e.g., business, development, product, design, governance) and emphasize the ways design thinking connects to agile principles. For example, both prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

In the end, design thinking can help passionate, energetic agile teams do what they’ve always wanted to do, Ms. Speers says: “create something cool, clever and relevant.” With a product in hand, the next steps are familiar: “Ship it, listen to your users, learn and iterate, and carry on doing that for as long as the product is meant to live.” PM




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