Design Thinking to Improve Your Agile Process

Denis Vukosav


Agile project teams interact with users and deliver incrementally. This paper is an introduction to how design thinking, combined with agile, will further reduce the risk of failing. Design thinking is about “what” needs to be built, and agile is about “how” value can be delivered quickly. Though aligned, these interests are not the same. Agile delivery expects that the “what” has already been decided. Now, the “how” needs to be split into minimal, viable pieces. There are different views on the place where one approach flows into the other because there is a lot of overlap and similar methods can be used. It's better to look at design thinking and agile as a combination of tools and techniques because they all add value somewhere in the delivery process. This paper describes the benefits of introducing design thinking in agile organizations, and provides insights on how to apply design thinking in project management.


Design thinking, Agile, Innovation, MVP, Project management


Though statistical customer descriptions are important, a true understanding of habits, culture, social context, and motivation of the customer is crucial. The customer needs to be put at the center of the process. This requires a full understanding of the customer beyond statistical descriptions and empirical analyses of their needs.

Gaining authentic customer insights includes the application of methods and tools, which enables delivery teams to slip into the customer's shoes and understand their individual experience and its wider context. We are all customers—though with different needs and mindsets.

The understanding these different mindsets is where design thinking begins.

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is thinking about design or maybe even thinking before design. It's a process of watching people work, learning how they live their lives, and finding solutions to the difficulties they face each day. The next step is to gather up all that information, sort it, and look for patterns. Using those patterns, decide on a plan of action, brainstorm ideas with diverse and multidisciplinary teams, make a model or prototype, and then rework and tweak the invention until it does what it is supposed to.

Design thinking was not invented by a single person. Many people participated in the development of design thinking. Among others, the principle of “fail early and often” (Brown, 2009) was pioneered by Thomas Edison as he discovered the light bulb. He built 300 prototypes and failed with every attempt, until one of them finally worked (Kelley & Kelley, 2013).

However, back then it was not called design thinking as it is today. Design thinking links smart ideas and practical methods from different areas together and creates new combinations. The American consultancy, IDEO, was a forerunner in design thinking. Initially, they developed products. However, as clients increasingly approached IDEO with issues involving people and their needs rather than the actual products, it was time for new methods.

However, design thinking is not a new methodology, framework, set of steps, or process you need to strictly follow. Design thinking is how you work—the mindset, the methods, and the culture.

There is growing recognition that fostering a culture of innovation is critical to success, as important as mapping out competitive strategies or maintaining good margins (Kelley & Littman, 2005). Therefore, design thinking in projects enables not only empathy, but also invention and innovation.

Because design thinking involves new behaviors and mindsets that feel uncomfortable to many people raised in traditional organizations, it doesn't come naturally to most managers. Many organizations built supportive systems, processes, and cultures to help turn design thinking into a natural act, and education must be an important component of any strategy for creating both individual and larger organizational competencies in design thinking (Liedtka, King, & Bennett, 2013).

Interaction of Design Thinking and Agile

Everything we do—every project—starts with an idea, and that idea has to be good if we want to be successful.

The important question is how to recognize a good idea. The answer is by the introduction of three criteria that should prove if an idea has what it takes to result in a successful project (Kelley & Kelley, 2013).

Those criteria are:

1)Customer desirability (can be additionally split into utility, usability, and pleasurability)

2)Technical feasibility

3)Business viability or profitability

Agile project teams are already interacting with users, delivering incrementally, and making sure that customers are happy. Taking design thinking and combining it with agile further reduces the risk of failing. But how can you differentiate design thinking and agile activities and combine these approaches into a coherent whole?

In short, the interaction between agile and design thinking can be described like this:

  • Empathize, define, and ideate using a design thinking approach.
  • Build and deliver the product incrementally and faster through agile processes.

Just like dealing with the uncertainty of problem, solution, and market assumptions, agile development is a great way to cope with uncertainty in product or service development. No need to specify every detail of a product up front, because there are plenty of assumptions and uncertainty. Agile is a great way to build, measure, learn, and validate assumptions while creating a minimum viable product (MVP). A backlog is introduced and the scope that will be delivered needs to be split into short sprints, so that teams can deliver and test the value as part of each sprint.

There are different views on the place where one approach flows into the other, because there is a lot of overlap and similar methods are being used. So it's better to look at design thinking and agile as a combination of tools and techniques, rather than argue for one over the other, because they all add value.

What versus How

Design thinking is thinking about “what” needs to be built (or doesn't need to be built), and agile delivery is about “how” value can be delivered quickly. Although they are aligned, these interests are not exactly the same. Some design thinking initiatives were started with an idea of a certain project and, after understanding user needs, then moved in the direction of a different type of project.

Agile delivery expects that the “what” has already been decided, and now the “how” needs to be split into minimal, viable pieces. This can be pictured as a design thinking wedge that narrows and overlaps with an agile wedge that expands as the project's focus transitions from “what” to “how.”

Design thinking emphasizes building throwaway work to understand the problem better. In agile, the intent is to build minimally so as not to have to throw away work.

Design thinking and agile pair very well together as they build off of the iterative nature of one another. Design thinking helps with driving and fostering a creative and playful mentality that frees participants from judgment or fear of failure. It is also an iterative approach based on prototyping, which falls into agile methods perfectly.

Design thinking and agile should be combined using the three core elements of design thinking:

1)Multidisciplinary teams

2)Variable space

3)Design thinking methods

Multidisciplinary Teams

To solve complex problems, the expertise of a single person and the know-how of a single discipline are no longer sufficient. That is why successful and innovative companies focus on team effectiveness instead of individual capabilities. The ideal design thinking team draws on its members’ differences in terms of age, nationality, education, profession, and cultural background. This diversity allows teams to tap into many different areas of expertise, methods, and models. Such multidisciplinary teams often produce unusual results and innovative solutions.

Developers, managers, designers, and users can often misunderstand one another, simply because of the individual backgrounds and experiences. The ability to make use of this different knowledge during project development is crucial for its later success.

Variable Space

This kind of creative work calls for a special kind of environment, lending itself to the process. Generally, the workspace should support the group's creativity, openness, and communication. The office space should primarily be changeable and flexible. The office space has to quickly adapt to the team's needs (i.e., working while standing up or sitting, working as a team or by oneself, silently or noisily). It should be easy to move office furniture around, such as tables and chairs, quickly creating new scenarios. Organizations should play with their physical workplace in a way that sends positive “body language” to employees and visitors (Kelley & Littman, 2001).

Design Thinking Methods

Probably the most known element of the design thinking approach is its methods. The design thinking methods involve a series of nine activities split into three groups: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Usually, the introduction of agile delivery happens after completion of the ideation activities, so this paper's focus is on the first six activities that are part of the inspiration and ideation stages:




c.Point of view






1)Understand: In order to resolve a problem, a problem needs to be understood first. The only way to cope with the uncertainty of dealing with ill-defined problems is that a design thinking team has the self-confidence to frame, reframe, and change the problem as given, in the light of solutions that emerge in the very process of understanding (Cross, 2011). The problem statement defines the direction in which the solution proceeds. No matter how efficient the process for a new solution development is, the results will never be satisfactory if the wrong problem is being addressed. The result of this stage is an understanding that sheds light on different aspects of the problem that needs to be solved.

2)Observe: This step is all about users and their needs. This is what the team is going to research and dive deep into. A design thinking team observes the proceedings from the sidelines, learns from customers by doing field observations, conducts interviews with different stakeholders, gets new insights, and gains a deeper understanding of the problem and the users (Kelley & Littman, 2005). All the information is written down or recorded.

3)Point of view: In this step, the acquired information is evaluated. First, a team creates an overview by writing down the insights, usually on sticky notes. Then the appraisal follows. The sticky notes are put in clusters and new contexts, thus forming patterns where unorganized information once was. The team is able to recognize certain needs relating to a group of users. As a result, the team has a clear vision of the users, their needs, fears, and goals, and can proceed to find a suitable solution.

These first three stages of the design thinking approach enable teams to fully comprehend any complex problem. The risk of trying to solve the wrong problem is minimized. And this is exactly what is often forgotten and not practiced in many agile organizations. The issues are being resolved in the shortest possible time before there is an actual understanding of what is the problem.

In the next three activities, the design thinking team advances to the ideation stage and proposes one or more possible solutions that will be tested before proceeding with agile delivery.

4)Ideate: By now, the design thinking team has a clear take on the problem. In this stage, new ideas are generated, while keeping the users’ needs in mind. The team creates as many new ideas as possible to increase the chances of one of them being the optimal one. The evaluation and selection of the new ideas takes place, and only those ideas that pass the evaluation process proceed to the next round.

5)Prototype: The team transforms the ideas that have been selected into prototypes, using cloth, paper, Legos, or anything that is at hand. According to the saying “show, don't tell,” the goal is to allow potential users to experience the idea. The more realistic the user's experience of a future product or service, the more valuable the feedback (Brown, 2009).

6)Test: Once one or more prototypes are ready, a design thinking team sets out to find potential users and test their ideas. The team asks questions, makes observations, and gathers insights concerning the idea. What works well and what does not? Which questions remain and how can an idea be improved?

The team reframes the problem and, depending on the feedback, the team decides if it will go back one step or more—or maybe completely abandon one prototype and proceed with testing of another.

During the ideation stage, the proposed solutions are validated quickly, at low risk, and with minimal efforts. If the team sticks to the process in its entirety, they will most likely develop a unique solution for its specific target group. When agile delivery of such a proven solution starts, a lot of time and money will be saved.

Agile and Design Thinking Combined – Survey Results

In the following section, the overview of the key benefits of design thinking and agile being combined is shown. These findings are based on the results of several months of interviews held from November 2018 until February 2019. The interviews took place with 102 design thinking and project management practitioners in the United States and Europe who were directly involved in projects where both design thinking and agile were used. All interviews were voluntary and lasted between 25–30 minutes.

1)An introduction to design thinking enables teams to uncover true customer insights. In agile, often solutions are proposed but no insights are offered into why the problem even exists.

2)Design thinking devotes an entire process step to developing customer empathy, which often gives insights that teams couldn't get from a written ask or backlog story. This step is often minimized or skipped altogether within the agile framework, usually in favor of speed.

3)Design thinking ensures solutions are highly relevant and compelling from the user's perspective, while agile allows teams to learn quickly, change direction when needed, and build solutions according to user needs.

4)Agile and design thinking should be used together to reach the most impactful outcomes for users. Otherwise, there is a significant risk that delivered solutions may not be relevant to user needs, or become obsolete when those needs change.

5)Agile and design thinking work well together, as the iterative nature of design fits well with sprints. The design ideas of fail fast and test often fit well with agile sprints. Furthermore, the notion of MVP aligns to getting to a prototype quicker, so that it can be tested and further feedback received rather than waiting until the end during waterfall approaches. The cost of failure is smaller as teams are not waiting until the end before getting user feedback, but are allowing feedback to iteratively inform the next step.

6)The “playback” sessions are being used to regularly communicate with internal and external stakeholders. Stakeholders are included in all explorative research and they are given a voice since the design thinking team is interested in hearing about feasibility as early as possible.

7)Within the agile framework, many stories deliver an MVP version to the customer that is acceptable for a user but may need additional refinement, functionality, or development. The next iteration ends up at the bottom of the agile backlog and could require significant additional development time, which can make for a poor customer experience.

8)Design thinking is an approach to iteratively identify and solve problems via user focus, while agile is a delivery approach focused on fast, incremental iterations. Both mindsets are user-focused, where design thinking should happen extensively at the exploration phase and continue into development, where design artifacts are constantly being validated via usability testing before being further developed.


Design thinking enables empathy, invention, and innovation. To value a customer, some time needs to be invested in understanding the user interactions with project objectives, which means two things. First, viewing a service through the customers’ eyes, and second, designing it in such a way that customers receive a consistent experience. The design thinking approach allows for breaking through stereotypes and biased ways of thinking, and helps to maximize project value and bring new perspectives.

Design thinking and agile can be complementary, and design thinking is generally more appropriate earlier in the process. Design thinking is best when the solution space is still wide open. At that point, it is too early for agile development because we don't like to be tied to any concept yet, even a hypothetical one. Then, once a wide range of possible solutions has been generated and down-selected, and there's general agreement on a direction for a concept, it's good for agile delivery to start.


Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York, NY: Harper Business.

Cross, N. (2011). Design thinking: Understanding how designers think and work. Oxford, UK; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York, NY: Crown Business.

Kelley, T., & Littman, J., (2005). The ten faces of innovation: IDEO's strategies for defeating the devil's advocate and driving creativity throughout your organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Kelley, T., Littman, & J. (2011). The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO, America's leading design firm. (1st ed.). New York, NY: Crown Business.

Liedtka, J., King, A., & Bennett, K. (2013). Solving problems with design thinking: Ten stories of what works. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Author Biography

Denis Vukosav, as the vice president at State Street International in Dublin, Ireland, leads the U.S. and EMEA program for the company's key client. Managing teams across the world, he is responsible for project, program, and portfolio governance, and assures delivery of select strategic initiatives. Prior to joining State Street, Mr. Vukosav was a PMO head and program manager in the financial services, card payments, and airline industries.

Experienced in design thinking, agile, and waterfall delivery, Mr. Vukosav has a master's degree in organizational management, is a 2009 Kerzner International Project Manager of the Year finalist, and has been a Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification holder since 2009. As a keynote speaker and a guest speaker, Mr. Vukosav has presented at many project management conferences around the world. He is the author of several project management and design thinking articles, and is recognized as one of the most prominent voices advocating for creativity and innovation in project management.



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