6 Best Practices for Integrating Design Thinking into an Agile Project

Design Thinking is a new label for the User Experience process we’ve been employing for years as it is a human-centered approach to designing products and experiences.

What is Design Thinking?


Design Thinking is a people-centered model that encourages creativity and innovation to create a product or service that solves a complex problem for your target customer or user. It can help you innovate a new product, design a simple solution to a complex problem, or to get the whole team involved in generating design ideas so they feel included and believe in the process.

Design thinking does tend to be marketed as a more strategic, problem-solving, big-idea process, versus UX, which is grounded in more tactical work on a digital experience. This is not entirely true, as UX also is grounded in doing empathic research to help define the problems to solve, find ways to innovate, but then is used to continue designing, testing, iterating, and building a product or service. The two methodologies are virtually the same, although I will admit the collaboration aspect of design thinking is not always done in the UX process in practice because of how much time it takes up for the whole team. Collaboration is, however, a very important ingredient on an agile software project, and an effective way to conduct design. Therefore, design thinking fits well into the agile model of doing digital design.

There are quite a few methodologies, books, and articles written on how to conduct design thinking, how to incorporate UX into the Agile process and how to innovate. Putting it into practice on your project is another matter.

Here are some best practices and ideas for employing design thinking on an agile project:

1. Empathize in Sprint 0, or before the agile sprints begin

The first step is to empathize with your target user by doing user research, so if you haven’t gotten out of the building and observed or spoken to your target user in a while, then it is important that you do it now. Allow all team members to participate in some of the research sessions, or make it mandatory to watch some video footage. If you have already done some research, or have some dated research and ideas you want to test, then combine your user research efforts with a test of some early ideas from your first design thinking session. Another option is to take the existing research you have and create a journey map of the user’s experience as your first step in the design thinking session. Visualizing the user’s journey in a journey map creates empathy in all the team members, sparks new problems to solve, or helps you come up with new ideas and solutions. But, going in to a design thinking session with no idea about your users can cause you to focus on the wrong problems, or worse, create a product that no one will use.

2. Have a very clearly defined problem to solve, or a big picture defined that you can sprint towards.

If you are embarking on a large scale project, doing research and design thinking during “sprint 0”, or as a precursor to the actual build phase helps to define your problems and solutions more clearly, and to explore and test multiple interaction metaphors to create a framework for the entire design. Design patterns can be explored and tested during this phase for the most important or complicated features so they are well thought out before coding begins. Good design requires some incubation time for the team to get to a concept that gels and will scale with the addition of many new features and processes added as the project progresses into the sprint phase. It is imperative to have a design vision to sprint towards or the design can fall apart, or require much more iterations than needed.

3. Include the whole team in the process

Collaboration is the key to innovation and success. Including the whole team in the process gives everyone skin in the game, builds team camaraderie, and collaboration across disciplines always ensures more innovations, ideas, and ultimately a better design solution. The entire team shouldn’t be the entire design and development team, but a core team for that particular product or feature that is responsible for designing and building. The team should include a business/product decision maker, UX researcher and designer, visual designer, scrum master or project manager, developers and even QA. No more than 8-10 people in the room will yield the best results, and every team member must have an equal voice.

4. Include design thinking in Sprint 0, and at key parts of the design / development process for the most important features

Design thinking is a flexible model that can be employed early on in a project, or within every sprint to continue iterating the design based on learnings. Design thinking can be an all-in, week-long workshop of designing, building and testing, or a meeting to work through one small feature with testing happening in the next sprint. The workshop approach can be time consuming and isn’t always necessary to design every feature in a large-scale project. Therefore, use the design thinking workshops strategically in the beginning of your project and then at key times where there is a particularly difficult problem to solve, a feature that requires innovation, or one that has high visibility or cost benefit. Inserting a design thinking break into the overall sprint plan can be beneficial to the entire team to have a fun, collaborative experience, to kick start a new phase in the project, fix issues in the process or design, or to reestablish relationships.

5. Create a Design System with Design Patterns

Creating a design system that contains design patterns (among other things, see …)to use as building blocks as the design progresses helps to speed up design and development on an agile project and to ensure a consistent user experience across design tracks and products. Design patterns can be seen to stifle creativity, but if they are created in the design thinking sessions where everyone is included can help create the consistency, ensure the patterns will work for everyone, and are implementable. Design patterns are just building blocks, and these blocks can speed later design sessions and allow the team to focus on the overall experience design or innovating a new feature rather than worrying about how to solve lower level design decisions.

6. Test Early and Often

Test your designs every week as lean UX advocates, once a sprint, or once every 3 sprints. The key is to start testing before the design is too mature and before coding is complete, and test more than once or twice. I recommend testing during your sprint 0 to test your overall ideas, interaction concepts and to learn more about the user’s workflow, expectations, and goals. Then, test according to your sprint schedule and when you have a prototype with enough working to fill a one-hour session. Testing a simple prototype early in the project is fine to get feedback on early ideas, then testing the working software in later sprints to hone the design is recommended. Getting your designs in front of users is the most important part of the design thinking and UX process though – getting feedback on your designs early and often will always make the design better. Recruiting participants, either in B2B or B2C settings can prove difficult on some projects, and I recommend planning way ahead on defining your target users, assigning someone to be in charge of recruiting, and getting a process in place to recruit so the project stays on schedule.

Summing It Up

Design thinking may be a new way of thinking about design, but it is not a new methodology to designing digital experiences. Incorporating it into the agile process can promote the collaboration needed to have a successful agile project, and a successful product.

Design Thinking is a new label for the User Experience process we’ve been employing for years as it is a human-centered approach to designing products and experiences.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a people-centered model that encourages creativity and innovation to create a product or service that solves a complex problem for your target customer or user. It can help you innovate a new product, design a simple solution to a complex problem, or to get the whole team involved in generating design ideas so they feel included and believe in the process.

Design thinking does tend to be marketed as a more strategic, problem-solving, big-idea process, versus UX, which is grounded in more tactical work on a digital experience. This is not entirely true, as UX also is grounded in doing empathic research to help define the problems to solve, find ways to innovate, but then is used to continue designing, testing, iterating, and building a product or service. The two methodologies are virtually the same, although I will admit the collaboration aspect of design thinking is not always done in the UX process in practice because of how much time it takes up for the whole team. Collaboration is, however, a very important ingredient on an agile software project, and an effective way to conduct design. Therefore, design thinking fits well into the agile model of doing digital design.

There are quite a few methodologies, books, and articles written on how to conduct design thinking, how to incorporate UX into the Agile process and how to innovate. Putting it into practice on your project is another matter.

Here are some best practices and ideas for employing design thinking on an agile project:

1. Empathize in Sprint 0, or before the agile sprints begin

The first step is to empathize with your target user by doing user research, so if you haven’t gotten out of the building and observed or spoken to your target user in a while, then it is important that you do it now. Allow all team members to participate in some of the research sessions, or make it mandatory to watch some video footage. If you have already done some research, or have some dated research and ideas you want to test, then combine your user research efforts with a test of some early ideas from your first design thinking session. Another option is to take the existing research you have and create a journey map of the user’s experience as your first step in the design thinking session. Visualizing the user’s journey in a journey map creates empathy in all the team members, sparks new problems to solve, or helps you come up with new ideas and solutions. But, going in to a design thinking session with no idea about your users can cause you to focus on the wrong problems, or worse, create a product that no one will use.

2. Have a very clearly defined problem to solve, or a big picture defined that you can sprint towards.

If you are embarking on a large scale project, doing research and design thinking during “sprint 0”, or as a precursor to the actual build phase helps to define your problems and solutions more clearly, and to explore and test multiple interaction metaphors to create a framework for the entire design. Design patterns can be explored and tested during this phase for the most important or complicated features so they are well thought out before coding begins. Good design requires some incubation time for the team to get to a concept that gels and will scale with the addition of many new features and processes added as the project progresses into the sprint phase. It is imperative to have a design vision to sprint towards or the design can fall apart, or require much more iterations than needed.

3. Include the whole team in the process

Collaboration is the key to innovation and success. Including the whole team in the process gives everyone skin in the game, builds team camaraderie, and collaboration across disciplines always ensures more innovations, ideas, and ultimately a better design solution. The entire team shouldn’t be the entire design and development team, but a core team for that particular product or feature that is responsible for designing and building. The team should include a business/product decision maker, UX researcher and designer, visual designer, scrum master or project manager, developers and even QA. No more than 8-10 people in the room will yield the best results, and every team member must have an equal voice.

4. Include design thinking in Sprint 0, and at key parts of the design / development process for the most important features

Design thinking is a flexible model that can be employed early on in a project, or within every sprint to continue iterating the design based on learnings. Design thinking can be an all-in, week-long workshop of designing, building and testing, or a meeting to work through one small feature with testing happening in the next sprint. The workshop approach can be time consuming and isn’t always necessary to design every feature in a large-scale project. Therefore, use the design thinking workshops strategically in the beginning of your project and then at key times where there is a particularly difficult problem to solve, a feature that requires innovation, or one that has high visibility or cost benefit. Inserting a design thinking break into the overall sprint plan can be beneficial to the entire team to have a fun, collaborative experience, to kick start a new phase in the project, fix issues in the process or design, or to reestablish relationships.

5. Create a Design System with Design Patterns

Creating a design system that contains design patterns (amongst other things, see …)to use as building blocks as the design progresses helps to speed up design and development on an agile project and to ensure a consistent user experience across design tracks and products. Design patterns can be seen to stifle creativity, but if they are created in the design thinking sessions where everyone is included can help create the consistency, ensure the patterns will work for everyone, and are implementable. Design patterns are just building blocks, and these blocks can speed later design sessions and allow the team to focus on the overall experience design or innovating a new feature rather than worrying about how to solve lower level design decisions.

6. Test Early and Often

Test your designs every week as lean UX advocates, once a sprint, or once every 3 sprints. The key is to start testing before the design is too mature and before coding is complete, and test more than once or twice. I recommend testing during your sprint 0 to test your overall ideas, interaction concepts and to learn more about the user’s workflow, expectations, and goals. Then, test according to your sprint schedule and when you have a prototype with enough working to fill a one-hour session. Testing a simple prototype early in the project is fine to get feedback on early ideas, then testing the working software in later sprints to hone the design is recommended. Getting your designs in front of users is the most important part of the design thinking and UX process though – getting feedback on your designs early and often will always make the design better. Recruiting participants, either in B2B or B2C settings can prove difficult on some projects, and I recommend planning way ahead on defining your target users, assigning someone to be in charge of recruiting, and getting a process in place to recruit so the project stays on schedule.

Summing It Up

Design thinking may be a new way of thinking about design, but it is not a new methodology to designing digital experiences. Incorporating it into the agile process can promote the collaboration needed to have a successful agile project, and a successful product.

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2017-08-28T15:35:40+00:00