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Agile vs design thinking: key differences, similarities, and why you don’t have to choose between them

Building strong, user-centric products often comes down to a great innovation strategy, which is where the agile and design thinking methodologies come in. 

Both strategies have similar philosophies: they rely on customer feedback and take an iterative approach to inspire ideas, avoid mistakes, and ultimately lead to better, faster, and more glorious products.

Last updated

6 Jun 2022
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Agile and design thinking aren't interchangeable, but the real benefit comes when you bring them together. This chapter will help you understand the distinction between agile and design thinking, the pros and cons of using each method, and how the two can work together. 

Use Hotjar to make user-centric product decisions

Harness data directly from users as they experience your product and give the team direct, easily accessible, and digestible product experience insights.

What is agile and how does it relate to design thinking?

Agile is a flexible project management method with a speedy, iterative approach to product development. 

Throughout agile product management, the team shares working demos or prototypes to gather feedback and uncover unanticipated user needs. The goal is to build and deliver a product incrementally, based on user feedback, rather than trying to deliver the whole solution all at once. 

When agile emerged in the early 2000s, it gave developers the freedom to test new ideas, engage with users, and pivot the product plan in response to user feedback—while it was still relatively easy to do so. Sound familiar? It should:

The fundamentals of agile product management come from the same theories and practices that define design thinking.

Like agile, design thinking is a methodology built around users, allowing their feedback to drive the next iteration of a product. What separates the methodologies is a fundamental difference in core and execution: 

  • Design thinking is a way to define the problem. It’s how you explore ideas and test your beliefs to ultimately find the best possible solution. 

  • Agile helps solve the problem in the most efficient way possible. It's the framework you use to adapt to changing user needs.

Drawing the line between agile and design thinking

Agile and design thinking can (and should) be used together as part of a balanced, user-centric product development process—but you first need to understand where one ends and the other begins.

The biggest difference between design thinking and agile is that they serve different purposes

Design thinking is a problem-finding approach. It calls for a high degree of empathy and understanding of end users, and is an iterative process to develop new ideas, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems. Design thinking looks at the why of a problem, with a focus on asking users questions about specific challenges that need to be solved. 

With design thinking, the goal is to define a solution that satisfies users’ needs by generating fresh ideas that teams can test with a series of user-focused exercises.

Agile, on the other hand, deals with predefined problems and focuses on getting the job done as quickly as possible. The focus is on the how of product development, breaking up the planning and scope of work into smaller units. As products develop, teams can make modifications based on real-time feedback from testing, iterating, and continuously improving throughout the development process.

Agile is a way of working/planning and design thinking is a way of finding out the answer to a certain hypothesis to know what to build. It can live inside of the agile planning framework.

Martina Tranström
Product Design Lead at Hotjar

4 things agile and design thinking have in common

Design thinking and agile mindsets aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, the way they complement each other makes them work beautifully together.

Design thinking is a mindset for exploring complex problems and finding opportunities in a world full of uncertainty. In these conditions, agile offers ways to build dynamic software that can adapt to change. 

And although they come from different origins—industrial design and software development—they also share many similarities, and are complementary and compatible.

Here are four shared characteristics of the agile and design thinking methodologies:

1. A focus on users (and user feedback)

Both agile and design thinking employ user feedback while building a product. They learn from the user experience to fine-tune and improve the product to create customer delight

Both processes gather input from sources other than the team performing the task, including user research, usability testing, business requirements, and technological options.

💡 Pro tip: user feedback plays a big role in uncovering insights about user needs and problems, and ensuring their experience with the product is delightful. 

Use Hotjar’s Survey and Feedback tools to place quick, non-invasive questions on key product or website pages for a steady stream of user feedback. For a fuller picture, combine these qualitative learnings with user observation data from Recordings or Heatmaps to see how users’ thoughts square with their behaviors.

This will help you understand significant pain points and areas of improvement, which can be used as guiding factors for introducing relevant product features.

Hotjar-Session-Recording 2

2. Constant iteration

Speed of result delivery, iteration of stages, and general agility are important in both agile and design thinking. Both methodologies make use of repeated improvements to build a better product. This means agile and design thinking are iterative and repetitive, and encourage teams to engage in product experimentation.

While the design is primarily about back and forth variations, the product is in a continuous process of development, and both methods refer to the same concept of continuous improvement.

3. Testing

The point of testing is to learn and improve, and both methods embrace this philosophy. 

Agile products are built early and often, constantly testing the result to see what's working—and what’s not. The agile method is based on defining the most important features first, then moving into defining those of lesser importance. This usually implies setting up a testing schedule with a prototype in place, before the design is mature and coding is finished.

Testing is just as important for design thinking, to validate new ideas and come up with a better solution. However, design thinking embraces the idea of using low-fidelity concepts—like UI mockups, sketches, and similar visual artifacts—to test early, and move to higher-fidelity concepts as you progress through learning. 

4. Collaboration 

A strong appeal for teamwork that values understanding and independence across departments is a core tenet of both agile and design thinking. 

From user research and brainstorms to team workshops and prototyping methods, these two methodologies constantly balance team efforts across product discovery and delivery to identify and prioritize user-centric business objectives.

3 differences between agile and design thinking

In spite of their parallels, the agile and design thinking methodologies can’t be used interchangeably. Here are three examples of where their similarities come to an end.

1. The root of the problem

Agile is a method to solve predefined problems, and to quickly execute solutions to those problems you’re already aware of. 

Design thinking focuses on finding the right problems to solve, and provides product teams with a way to make better choices about the journey their users should follow.

2. How user feedback is used

This difference involves how each method uses the feedback they’ve gathered from users at a specific time. 

With agile, the workflow is build first, then measure, then learn. The team creates a minimum viable product (MVP) and then relies on user feedback to make adjustments and improvements. 

However, with design thinking, the flow is learn, measure, then build. The design thinking process capitalizes on user feedback to discover which customer needs are not being met.

💡 Pro tip: agile teams can talk to users on a daily basis, but without the skills to listen and respond to user needs, that daily interaction won’t add the value product teams seek.

Use design thinking tools (like Hotjar 👋) to listen to customers and observe their behavior so you can empathize with their needs and identify specific problems—and possible solutions.

Hotjar’s Feedback widget

Hotjar’s Feedback widget lets users highlight parts of the page they like and don't like to help you spot areas for improvement.

3. Length of the development process

Agile teams might experience a longer product development process than teams that employ design thinking. That’s because the agile framework tends to develop a product first, and then uses feedback from users to make improvements. 

Design thinking seeks user feedback first, before teams even start working on the product. Since most feedback is factored in at the planning stage, this shortens the development process.

Combining agile and design thinking to deliver valuable products 

The agile and design thinking methodologies help teams develop new competencies, tackle problems, and explore possibilities at different stages of product development. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose one over the other. 

These two methods complement each other nicely, and can be part of a broader effort to be more user-centric and innovative.

Together, agile and design thinking help you understand where you’re at today, where you want to be tomorrow, and pursue success through exploration, experimentation, and validated learning.

How agile and design thinking work together for a better, user-centric product development process

Each mindset brings its own value to the product development lifecycle, and incorporating principles from both agile and design thinking can offset each method’s individual disadvantages. 

This leaves more room to rapidly generate new ideas and embrace the type of user-centered innovation that can transform your product. 

Avoid building a product nobody needs—or wants

One of the risks of using agile is that you might end up designing (and partially building) a product that your users don't want. However, design thinking offsets this because its methodology prevents you from wasting resources on unfruitful ideas.

Understand the product roadmap

Design thinking focuses on repeated ideation and continuous feedback from the start, which makes it difficult to estimate product timelines. Agile creates a clear path to the product, which helps designers estimate the time to completion. 

Speed up the development process

Because users aren’t included during the initial stages, agile teams tend to take a lot of time developing and shaping the product in response to user feedback after the product launch. Design thinking shortens the development process because it takes feedback into account during the ideation stage, preventing a drawn-out timeline. 

Focus on the right changes at the right time

If agile teams become overly focused on incremental improvements, they can lose sight of the impact their iterations will have on the customer experience. Design thinking fills the gaps by using research techniques that uncover human needs and motivations. It also includes rapid prototyping methods that enable teams to test new ideas quickly.

💡 Pro tip: combine agile and design thinking techniques to iteratively build a better product as a team.

Agile developers that use design thinking when talking to customers do a better job of gathering feedback and figuring out solutions to the right problems. In turn, design thinkers that adopt agile strategies, like daily stand-ups and sprints, drive better collaboration and communication within their teams.

Quickly prove (or disprove) hypotheses

Design thinking helps you identify a problem through user research before creating a solution for it. This helps ensure that users need the product, but your assumptions might turn out to be wrong. Shorter agile sprints offset this by ensuring you don’t waste a lot of time on each idea.

Within design thinking, you might find that the hypothesis you thought was true is not what your users are looking for.

Martina Tranström
Product Design Lead at Hotjar

How to use agile and design thinking together in product development (in 3 steps)

Think of the collaboration between agile and design thinking as a work of art: designers and engineers are the artists; the product is the medium. Together, they work iteratively and continuously to craft solutions that delight the user throughout their entire experience with the product.

The principle sounds simple: use design thinking to identify the right problems to solve, and then use agile to iteratively build solutions to solve those problems. The execution, however, can be a little elusive. 

Finding the right balance between discovery (researching and understanding what your users want and designing solutions to meet those needs) and delivery (coding, testing, and deploying) can be challenging. The trick is to devise and manage a shared workflow that efficiently integrates both sets of activities.

Here’s how these two mindsets come together in practice.

1. Define your beliefs and assumptions (so they can be tested)

The first step is to draw on two aspects that are baked into design thinking: 

  1. Focusing on and empathizing with customers

  2. Intuitive reasoning and questioning

This creative method lets you ask the right questions and challenge your assumptions, and reveals the core of the problem you're trying to solve. These insights will be the basis of what you test later on, by translating them into questions or experiments.

Use design thinking to:

  • Gather information and determine the facts to identify problems and opportunities for your product.

  • Define a problem statement, break down your beliefs, and identify the underlying assumptions in your thinking.

  • Frame the problem, analyze information, and synthesize insights for strategic decision making.

  • Employ critical analysis to make judgments about the meaning of what you know. 

The entire design thinking process is about listening to users’ feedback, and implementing changes for your solution based on that feedback. As an agile team, you want to create a closed loop that brings feedback directly into the development environment. This includes user research methods like interviews, surveys, analytics, experience mapping, SWOT analysis, value streaming mapping, and more.

Make sure your users can submit issues, suggestions, and ideas through embedded feedback mechanisms within the product, both during development and once in production.

🔥 If you’re using Hotjar

Empathize with your users by watching session recordings, and ask them what they think with on-page surveys.

These insights will help you identify who your users are, what they think about your product, and what problems they have with the user experience.

01 Different Feedback widgets that ask users to rate their UX and satisfaction score

Hotjar’s tool stack gives you insights and user feedback ‘in the wild’

2. Decide the most important thing to learn, and how you’ll learn it

Once you’ve understood the problem or opportunity in the first step, it’s time to explore solutions before you implement them. 

At this point, you can really use each method to their full potential. Don’t be afraid to rely on design thinking’s penchant for exploring possibilities and agile’s ability to coordinate coherent action. 

Use design thinking to: 

  • Ask provoking questions.

  • Entertain unconstrained thinking through brainstorming.

  • Follow tangents and new avenues of thought through ideation.

Use agile to:

  • Evaluate your options, decide what matters most, and home in on strategic intent.

  • Set challenges and define the key elements of a solution.

  • Create solutions as prototypes, while keeping options open and remaining adaptive to change.

Design thinking helps you learn where and how the product is not in tandem with user needs and objectives, to move yourself from ambiguity to clarity. Then once you find a creative solution, you can bring in agile to fast-track the process and rapidly respond to user feedback, moving from prototyping to product launch to refinement.

By combining agile with design thinking in this step, you get to discover a product and get organizational feedback to know if stakeholders agree with your idea, which helps prevent wasting time and resources. 

3. Design experiments that will deliver insights

The third step is where you test your beliefs through action: this part of the strategy involves making your hypotheses testable, running experiments, measuring outcomes, and refining your initial strategy through what you’ve learned. 

Use design thinking to:

  • Design user-led experiments that test your initial assumptions—and help you generate more.

  • Start with an early release or MVP of a usable product and iterate toward the best solution based on real user feedback.

Use agile to:

  • Build features and products that are dynamic and can adapt to change.

  • Test simple prototypes to eliminate errors and understand the viability of ideas during the early stages. 

  • Work in sprints to learn faster and reduce risk in your investments.

The heart of agile is to adapt gracefully to changing user needs. The best way to do this is by keeping releases small and frequent. These small batches of work can range from 2- to 12-week sprints. 

For your business, this means more flexibility to decide what to invest in. 

For your product team, it means you learn faster and reduce risk in investments. Your design is customer-led and can meet immediate user needs in a way that doesn’t constrain your ability to respond when things change.

Agile and design thinking in practice: IDEO

Design thinking pioneers and practitioners at IDEO use agile principles and practices to enhance their design thinking method. Their projects involve:

  • Teams made up of multi-disciplined members, with cross-functional responsibilities

  • Having a flat hierarchy, instilling individual autonomy, and providing team orientation through what they call ‘studios’

  • Using the Sprint method to start prototyping quickly, collect immediate user feedback, and make small mistakes early

  • Working in cycles (sprints) that last 8–12 weeks long

  • Incorporating product review and testing after every sprint

  • Keeping a constant line of communication with the product owner

5 potential challenges in combining agile and design thinking—and how to overcome them

Tying both methodologies together into one cohesive way of working isn’t easy, and you’ll probably face some challenges along the way. The good news is that there are specific steps you can take to effectively tie together agile and design thinking

Remember, design thinking is about exploring problems and opportunities that will move you toward building the right product for your users, and agile is a way to build things the right way. The strengths of each mindset come together to help you achieve the right outcomes for your users, team, and bottom line.

1. Using the right solution at the right time

Problem: Figuring out which methodology fits best at a certain stage of your product development process can be confusing. 

Solution: Start small and focus on high-value, low-risk opportunities to earn experience by using agile and design thinking together to generate solutions.

Generally, design thinking is best used in the early stages, when you're only shaping your idea. Agile is most effective when the problem is already defined and needs fast and effective implementation. 

Remember, designing the best version of your product is not a linear, straightforward process. Instead of focusing on applying a procedure, teams need to challenge how they think, try new things, embrace the things that work, and learn from the things that don’t. 

2. Balancing design and development

Problem: Mixing the two methodologies for the first time may create tension around how much time to spend on design thinking before actually beginning development. 

Solution: Make sure the team understands the value of the empathy, definition, and ideation phases, and that design thinking is not just leveraged at the beginning of the process. Encourage the entire team to understand the problem statement and build a useful design framework.

Then, as you go forward in the process, continually check in with the team, keeping them aligned around the common vision and celebrating wins—it will help them see the purpose of changes and adopt new approaches faster.

💡 Pro tip: celebrate small wins and mistakes as part of the learning process. 

Keep morale high in a messy transition period by focusing on small-scale successes. To keep up with momentum, create a learning-forward culture, where your team feels comfortable taking risks, messing up, and growing from the experience. 

Use Hotjar’s product experience insight tools to show your team positive user feedback as evidence that product changes and streamlined processes make a difference.

3. (Re)discovering the product

Problem: As agile team members mature in their design thinking practice, they may realize their agile stories haven’t been considered or validated from a user-centric perspective. 

Solution: To address this issue, take a dual-track approach, using a single, integrated team of designers and developers who balance their time between discovery and delivery.

Cross-organizational teams have a more comprehensive understanding of business requirements and user needs. This helps them make better, more informed decisions for the overall customer experience.

4. Simplifying the design handoff

Problem: When designers hand off fixed design assets to product developers, there's a chance that the developers won’t completely understand the UX design. In turn, this could lead to them coding it differently than it was intended. 

Solution: Interactive prototypes allow you to assess your idea and confirm it works correctly, while also simplifying design handoff. That’s why it's recommended to build a simple but interactive example of your design, rather than send static design assets. 

Another tactic is to use design patterns as building blocks. Once the entire team accepts them, these patterns become easier to implement and encourage team members to remove lower-level design decisions.

5. Increasingly complex requirements

Problem: The more complex a product or initiative, the longer it takes, and the more issues arise. 

Solution: The development team should work with the ScrumMaster to plan and design a solution as best as possible. That means breaking up complex requirements into smaller stories and iterating over time.

Break down the process into shorter sprints, like 2 weeks instead of 8, for example. Ask yourself: what can we find out during this 2-week sprint? 

Start small by conducting hybrid sprints, which embed design thinking activities and objectives into the agile sprint plan. This ensures incremental sprint planning and backlog grooming won’t overpower product management and restrict your team’s freedom to explore ambiguous questions and new methods.

💡 Pro tip: keep your users’ concerns in mind as your product evolves. 

Your team aren't the only ones who get nervous about product or organizational overhauls. Users can also worry about changes to a product—especially one they’re already attached to. 

As with your team, address your users’ emotional concerns. Use Hotjar’s feedback tools to understand what they’re anxious about and what they want you to prioritize in the change process. Then, get your users excited by showing them how they’ll benefit from the change.

Together, agile and design thinking lead to a user-centered workflow to achieve the best results

We’ve taken a closer look at what sets agile and design thinking apart, their similarities, and how they come together for innovative product development. In the end, it always comes down to making sure that user needs are kept front and center throughout the entire design and development process.

Design thinking brings a strong user focus, while agile is an excellent way to incrementally deliver solutions tailored to them. Together, these two methods can transform your organization, and ensure that every product delivers value to the business, your customers, and your team.

Use Hotjar to make user-centric product decisions

Harness data directly from users as they experience your product and give the team direct, easily accessible, and digestible product experience insights.

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