Elevate your Agile with Design Thinking

Agile and Design Thinking are complementary. Design Thinking is a human-centred approach to defining and solving problems, which encourages innovation and creativity in the problem solving process. Design Thinking is particularly well-suited to situations where the problem itself is not clear, advocating a strong focus on problem definition, problem shaping, and requirements clarification. Likewise, Agile methods embrace uncertainty and are appropriate for projects where the requirements are subject to change.

While Design Thinking is a solution-centric approach, it also places great emphasis on having a clear articulation of the problem. For Agile projects, the backlog is where the functional requirements of the system under development are captured, and the quality of those requirements is a significant factor determining the success of the project.

A pairing of Design Thinking with an Agile mindset and method can occur across the lifecycle of a project, from Initiate to Release. We will explore three examples of how to elevate your Agile with Design Thinking:

  • Ideation to develop the Agile backlog
  • Empathy puts the ‘human’ at the centre of the Agile backlog
  • Creativity and innovation reinvigorate Agile teams

Design Thinking Picture

Ideation to develop the Agile backlog: “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

Design Thinking uses divergence and convergence through ideation to generate and maximise ideas. Ideation is a process of generating many ideas through exploratory thinking and is based on a premise put forward by Linus Pauling: “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”




In the Agile Initiate and Discovery phases, collaboration and creativity are essential to drive innovation; for example, when defining the product vision or creating the product backlog. Once the problem has been framed, the process of ideation facilitates the creation of multiple potential solutions, in an environment that is free from inhibition and criticism, and with a focus on the team enjoying the creative and dynamic nature of the process. Each of the potential solutions is repeatedly refined and tested until a clear pathway forward becomes obvious, and a single solution is identified.



Product backlog items that are created as a result of ideation are more likely to be customer focussed, innovative and carefully considered, as a result of the team having looked at the problem from different angles and evaluated multiple potential solutions. Designing system features in this way provides the strongest possible foundation upon which to perform implementation.

In the Delivery phase, whether responding to changing requirements or troubleshooting issues raised during retrospectives, Design Thinking can be used as a collaborative problem-solving technique.

Empathy puts the ‘human’ at the centre of the Agile backlog

Design Thinking can be leveraged to articulate a human centric product backlog. Design Thinkers prioritise empathy as a key factor in understanding and identifying customer needs.


The creation of personas is both an Agile and Design Thinking technique which enables a deeper understanding of the user’s motivations, expectations, goals, and feelings. A persona is a detailed profile of a “typical” end user, which emerges through research of actual users. Through the use of personas, an Agile Design Thinker walks in the shoes of the customer, creating a backlog that expresses solutions through a user lens. By immersing themselves in the users’ experience, Agile Design Thinkers develop a deep sense of ownership of the end product, and are empowered by the journey they share with the user.

Creativity and innovation reinvigorate Agile teams

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”

Winston Churchill

Even high performing Agile teams can experience fatigue with the process. The initial burst of energy and optimism can be eroded by repetition and a belief that Agile is rigid and process-driven. Those aspects which were initially the motivating factors in adopting an Agile approach can become the perceived negatives over time. For example, the implementation of a specific Agile method may not seem to be delivering on the promise of “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”


Design Thinking can be used as an everyday tool to drive enthusiasm, to encourage collaborative, innovative thinking, and to generate a dynamic, powerful energy that can invigorate the Agile team. When an Agile team loses its momentum, specific Design Thinking tools, such as the 5 whys, can be used to understand the root cause of the fatigue. The 5 whys is a simple concept which involves asking the question “why?” 5 times, to drill down to the ‘real’ source of the problem.

Agile teams who embrace the Design Thinking mindset will focus not just on continuous improvement, but on continuous innovation, therefore reducing the threat of Agile fatigue. Design Thinkers combine empathy, creativity, and logic, to ideate and explore innovative solutions to team problems.

Agile and Design Thinking to deliver the ‘right’ product

In an Agile project, the objective is to satisfy customer needs through early and continuous delivery of high quality software which provides real business value. The product backlog is the primary mechanism through which scope, requirements, and ultimately business value, are managed and delivered. If we apply Design Thinking across the backlog, we can reduce the risk that requirements are insufficiently defined or incorrectly prioritised and we can create a deeper connection with the end customer. An Agile team that embraces the Design Thinking mindset can sustain momentum and rapidly deliver the right product.

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