A recipe for success: When Design Thinking meets Agile

When a focus on user needs blends with continuous delivery great things can happen. Here are three ways it can bring success to your process.

Steve Morris
Daemon thinking
4 min readNov 29, 2021


Something that comes up a lot when we talk with enterprise clients is how Design Thinking Agile working practices can fit together. I’ve worked on a fair few Software Engineering projects using the Sprint-based methodology and it got me thinking about how I pick out a few pointers for people looking to understand how these two approaches can be blended together.

I believe the first thing to understand is that Design Thinking is a ‘mindset’ that includes a whole suite of techniques and tools. Whilst the foundations are the 5 stages in the process (Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test), in my experience these rarely happen in a sequenced or linear way.

Here’s the three key points I used when talking about Design Thinking and how it works well with Agile:

  1. Continuous Discovery meets Continuous Delivery
  2. Design as a ‘Team Sport’
  3. Building bridges

Continuous Discovery meets Continuous Delivery
Design Thinking in a nutshell is focusing on problems from a human centred perspective. When we talk about Desirability (do people want this?), Feasibility (can we build this?) and Viability (does this support ongoing business goals?) the most emphasis should really be on Desirability. If something is technically achievable and seems to make financial sense that does not automatically mean people will want it and use it.

So it’s vital that at the end of each sprint we gather feedback from users of course. ‘Grooming’ the backlog based on value to users is essential to Agile’s key principle of continuous delivery, and discovering and learning is part of that process. From a Design perspective that’s observing and talking to users and understanding their needs, and then adapting to them.

This is a micro-cycle of the 5 stage process: we gain more empathy with users and learn ore from them, we try new ideas and features, we test and we prototype quickly. We build that continuous discovery into our Agile rituals and it becomes part of the ‘cadence’ of our delivery.

Design as a ‘Team Sport’
Central to the success of Agile delivery is the high performing team, but getting there can be easier said than done. From the outset I’ve always made it clear to developers and engineers that they have a big part to play in the overall customer journey and experience, and that sometimes means being more ‘hands on’ in certain activities than perhaps they’ve been used to before.

The best outcomes I’ve seen have involved regular mini-workshop sessions where a diverse group come together to look at what might traditionally be thought of as purely ‘design problems’ — something the UX/UI designer would take care of. In those sessions and throughout Sprints I’d routinely ask engineers questions like: What should the UI do here to support those users? How do we make this feature work? What could work in this part of the user journey?

The ‘Team Sport’ approach feeds directly in to the dynamics of what makes high performing teams really work: a unified outlook, shared understanding of goals and the empowerment that drives ownership and accountability. This multi-discipline collaboration is at the heart of both Design Thinking and Agile.

Building Bridges
Design is, by its very nature, concerned with how we get from point A to point B. And that place has to be somewhere better — maybe that’s a thing that’s easier to use or more cost effective or perhaps more efficient at doing the job intended. Agile development is simply a way of delivering that new value in the most consistent and efficient way.

Part of going on that journey is articulating that vision and telling that story in a clear and compelling way. We can see Design and Design Thinking as something that sits across business functions and actively looks for ways to connect up different parts of an organisation. With an Agile delivery project this might include ways of keeping stakeholders fully in the picture, such as facilitating collaborative workshops to gain wider knowledge and understanding, or creating and sharing visual assets to bring ideas and concepts to life. For Scrum teams transparency is more than just velocity or burn down charts, it’s about strong communication being an essential part of effective collaboration when co-creating value. Good communication is in the DNA of Designers, and they can help these teams tell better stories.

Design Thinking and Agile are a set of frameworks, principles and activities that work really well together ‘to help teams align and deliver differentiated solutions that drive growth and bring new value to consumers’ as IBM put it. The challenge is to create and manage a shared workflow that efficiently weaves together both sets of activities. I hope the three examples I’ve written about provide some useful pointers as you go on this journey.

Further reading:


Understanding Design Thinking, Lean and Agile (Thoughtworks article)