Implementing Design Thinking in Agile

Posted June 15, 2017 | Leadership |
Design Thinking
Bhardwaj Velamakanni

One of the key attributes of an Agile team is its ability to develop creative solutions and improve continuously. As team members think outside the box while the solutions are being designed, they investigate better methods to accomplish their tasks. This Advisor presents an overview of improving Agile techniques and practices by using design thinking within the Agile space and describes three techniques from design thinking methodologies that tend to yield benefits to Agile practitioners.

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking1 is a solution-oriented approach toward business problem solving that involves an outside-the-box viewpoint. Tim Brown, in his book Change by Design, and Emrah Yayci, in his book Design Thinking Methodology Book, discuss this concept in detail and present their own methodologies.

The main phases of design thinking include the three i’s — as presented by Brown (inspire, ideate, implement) — or the detailed steps (described by others) that include empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Yayci makes the case for applying design thinking, Lean, and Agile at three different layers to get the best out of an initiative. With all these concepts in mind, I refer to three design thinking principles that could improve agility itself.

1. Personas and Empathy Map to Support Epics and Stories

A critical entity in the design thinking methodologies is the “persona” of the customer/user. The design thinker empathizes with the customer and attempts to feel what the customer feels. As a part of this exercise, the design thinker builds a persona around the real user that helps synthesize the people at the receiving end of the solution. There can be different personas in a system (usually four: goal-directed, role-based, engaging, and fictional).

In the context of the Lean and Agile world, building these personas goes a long way to helping teams in user role modeling and understanding the intrinsic details that are otherwise likely to be missed. Empathy maps are the visual representations of the persona, drilling into the specific details of the feelings, needs, and behaviors of the customer/user. The information is usually gathered by answering the following questions:

  1. What does the user (customer) think and feel?

  2. What does the user hear?

  3. What does the user say or do, and what are the pains and gains in that activity?

  4. What does the user see?

There are other attributes that the team might need. They include:

  • Tasks

  • Feelings

  • Pain points

  • Overall goal

  • Influences

The Practical Guide to Empathy Maps” presents a wonderful approach toward this exercise.

Obviously, on Agile teams, the above information helps the product owners and the product managers take that extra step in defining hyperefficient acceptance criteria from the user perspective. Also, the information contained in the empathy maps always comes in handy while defining the success/acceptance criteria for the epics, or the user stories. If needed, the story may take a new format like (just as an example, not a concrete story):

As an <empathized user with the attached empathy map> I need to be able to <perform an activity> so that <I have the value> while <my empathy map constraints are met>

<Acceptance criteria>

2. Applying Design Thinking to Post-Retrospective Improvements

The inspire-ideate-implement cycle works very well on the action items that arise out of Scrum retrospectives and SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) inspect and adapt (I&A) workshops. Kaizen aids continuous improvement by facilitating rapid decision making with small objectives, small actions, and small solutions, iteratively.

The emphasis on “thinking outside the box from end to end” will help team members keep the big picture in mind as they implement and optimize the action items. The action item arising out of a retrospective/I&A meeting could potentially lead to inspiration, followed by ideation and implementation downstream.

Learn More About Design Thinking

Design Thinking

Watch Edgar Barosso's on-demand webinar, Transdisciplinary Innovation: Finding Solutions Where You Never Looked Before to discover how you can take advantage of thinking about the future and act on transdisciplinary insights.

Read Creativity in a Formula? A Peek Behind the Curtains of Design Thinking in Business for an introduction to the method itself, two cases and their design thinking practice, and a framework of findings with an explanation of the different concepts of the framework and their interconnections through examples from the cases. 

Get your team immersed in the challenges and opportunities digital transformation presents at the next Cutter Digital Transformation & Innovation Bootcamp. They’ll return with new ideas and strategies that have been vetted by other smart business leaders.

3. Using a Design Thinking Tool for Distributed Agile Teams

Lutz Gericke, Raja Gumienny, and Christoph Meinel developed Tele-Boards as a tool for collaboration among people across distance and time. Tele-Boards are deemed to excel in enabling the collaboration of people across various geographies and time zones. People can work with whiteboards and sticky notes but have the advantage of having them digitized and shared across multiple locations. In addition, the “history” feature of the tool helps people understand the events that occurred in their absence, allowing them to go back and forth across the timelines.

Though originally intended to help the design thinking teams, this tool would come in handy for the distributed Agile teams by facilitating team collaboration with peers and stakeholders alike. They can be used as effective task/huddle/dashboards. A translucent whiteboard, for instance, laid on top of the videoconferencing screen is the key to effective communication and collaboration. Teams can also create multiple instances of the whiteboards whenever needed.

1For more on design thinking, see “5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process,” “Creativity at Work,” and “Design and the Circular Economy.”


About The Author
Bhardwaj Velamakanni
Bhardwaj “Bhard” Velamakanni is an Agile and Lean coach, trainer, and transformation leader, helping his clients find their Agile mojo and get better at what they do. He specializes in transitions at scale.