GuidesProduct developmentAgile vs design thinking: Which methodology is right for your team?

Agile vs design thinking: Which methodology is right for your team?

Last updated

14 February 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

Waiting until you have built an entire product to see how it will perform in the marketplace can result in costly and time-consuming expenses.

In 1985, Coca-Cola launched New Coke. Before launching it, they did focus-group testing on the new formula's flavor. Most of the participants didn't hate the flavor and some gave it high marks.

However, when Coca-Cola launched New Coke, it infuriated its customers, so much so that some switched to Pepsi. It wasn't the taste that turned customers away, but their emotional connection with Coke's original formula.

Suppose Coca-Cola had considered more in-depth customer-focused methodologies, like design thinking or Agile approaches when testing the idea of New Coke. They may have been able to anticipate this issue and move on to other ideas more quickly.

To avoid your own New Coke debacle, you need to know what user-centric methodologies are available, how they relate to product development, and which process would be the best approach in your product development efforts.

What is Agile?

Agile focuses on quickly solving problems that have already been acknowledged. This methodology allows for more flexibility while the product is being built, enabling gradual delivery rather than building and problem-solving before delivering a final solution. This approach incorporates solutions and delivers them to the user to help with adjustments and improvements.

Users' feedback allows you to adjust the product plan along the way. Agile helps you adapt to changing user requirements and efficiently solve any issues that user feedback reveals. The Agile approach structures the workload in scrums, time-boxed iterations called sprints, or visual boards that help you manage and track tasks.

The role of customer feedback in Agile

When customers receive your product, it's time to collect customer feedback. Gathering this data can help you understand how customers react to your product and, at the same time, maintain a relationship with them. You can make several feedback channels available.

The channels you use to gather data will depend on your goals. They could include:

  • Usability tests

  • Product usage data

  • Forums

  • Emails

  • Social media

  • Interviews

  • Focus groups

  • Surveys

Once you’ve collected the data, you'll document the feedback and prioritize its importance. The level of importance is usually based on what will bring the most value to the customer and yield the best customer experience.

What is design thinking?

This methodology defines what the problems might be. Design thinking helps you discover which customer needs aren't being met and why. Design thinking eliminates the need for trial and error, which can be time-consuming and expensive in product development.

As with Agile, customer or user feedback is important to understand so you can transform your offering into something that meets their needs and preferences and may even delight them. Once you have this information, you can invest in building a product according to their specifications, not what you think they want or need.

The design-thinking workflow can include steps such as:

  • Empathizing with the customer's perspective and pain points conveyed through feedback

  • Defining the root problem that needs to be solved

  • Ideating potential objective solutions to the root problem

  • Building prototypes of potential solutions

  • Testing prototypes with customers to gather more feedback

The design-thinking process starts with customer feedback. This tells you their problems and pain points. Using this methodology, you would then test ideas that may lead to proposed solutions to satisfy those customers' needs.

You can do research through focus groups and present the participants with concept designs or functional prototypes. You can collect user feedback on the product or features that assess the following:

  • Desirability

  • Viability

  • Feasibility

  • Ease of use

Using the feedback you receive during this phase, you can continue to make improvements to the initial concept and test the improvements based on these assessments. Once you've arrived at the best possible solution, you can start building the product.

How do design thinking and Agile thinking compare?

There are differences and similarities between the two methods. Let’s take a look.

What is the difference between design thinking and Agile?

Design thinking focuses on how product design ideas can solve customer problems. Agile methodology centers on how to solve product problems. Because of the contrast in approach, the workflow of the two methods differs.

The problem is defined first in the Agile method, and product increments are being built. Frequently testing the product components gradually and delivering them to users for feedback will uncover where you can make improvements and continue to resolve issues. You will continue to make incremental improvements to the product as feedback is received.

In the design-thinking workflow, you'll collect customer feedback first, followed by repeatedly testing and gathering feedback on ideal solutions, and then building the product when the best path is revealed.

What do design thinking and Agile have in common?

Both methodologies aim to make continuous improvements to build a better product for the customer. They do this through user feedback, repetitive processes, and constant testing to learn and improve.

Effective collaboration between teams and team members is also required in both methodologies. Rather than a hierarchical team organization, people are self-organized into autonomous, independent teams.

Design thinking vs scrum

Scrum is a project management method used throughout the Agile approach and solution development. It highlights teamwork, accountability, and repetitive progress toward a defined goal.

Because the Agile approach produces and delivers a product incrementally, each scrum sprint will examine each product increment to be released.

Scrums are not associated with the design-thinking process because of the different workflows used with Agile and design thinking. However, you can add an Agile scrum to the design-thinking process after the problem is defined and a solution proposed.

What is the Agile mindset in design?

Agile design thinking revolves around customer feedback. Gathering and documenting feedback generates inspiration and opportunities to increase the value of your product for your customers while minimizing waste.

You can fix any issues you discover during product development on the spot rather than waiting until the end of the workflow to fix them.

Potential challenges in combining Agile and design thinking

Because of their differences, you cannot exchange the Agile and design-thinking processes with one another. You can combine the two approaches for optimum results, but they are not interchangeable.

For example, once the design-thinking team has defined the problem and arrived at the best possible solution for a product, the Agile team can refine the solution. However, that doesn't mean the design-thinking process has ended.

Arriving at the best version of a product isn’t a linear process. A back-and-forth exchange of ideas and data between design thinking and Agile teams should happen to determine what works and what doesn't.

Potential challenges can occur when combining these two processes because of their vastly different approaches. For example, conflicts with time allocation may happen. The Agile approach requires the solution to be implemented quickly, while the design-thinking process is not bound by time constraints. The Agile team will have to consider the significance of the design-thinking process and factor that into the framework.

Another potential difficulty is misinterpretations between the two teams. When the design-thinking team passes their process solutions to the Agile team, they must provide clear guidance on how the designs work. If the Agile team is unclear about the design-thinking team's intentions, they can misinterpret them, and any work started can be wasted because the product won't meet customer expectations.

How to select the right approach

The design-thinking approach is better suited to complex, customer-focused problems. While Agile does incorporate customer feedback into the process, it may not be as intensely focused on as the design-thinking approach.

Consider the Agile approach when you need greater flexibility in managing multiple projects or quickly adapting to changing requirements.

Manage your next project with customer-focused methods 

Whether you choose Agile, design thinking, or both methodologies to build products, the customer experience should always be at the forefront when considering product development and improvement.

Although these two methodologies have different approaches when problem-solving, their shared characteristics allow them to be used in conjunction with one another for more thorough solutions when enhancing the customer experience.

Don't wait until your entire product is designed and built before asking the customer what they want. Your product development plan should involve the customer throughout the process to ensure your solution meets their needs the first time around.

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