Design Thinking: Empathy + Agility + Iteration

By: ITA Group
light bulb with illustration of brain

Many organizations who are trying to transition from Waterfall Methodologies to Agile Methodologies make the mistake of thinking Agile is only a process change. It’s actually a mindset change.

Have you ever heard the term ‘Fail Fast’ and thought “What does that mean?” or “Why would I try to fail?”

Most agile processes and development initiates from what’s called the ‘Engineering Design Process’ which follows a cycle of steps, ensuring user empathy, prototyping, testing and quickly iterating. Stanford’s (Design School) formalized this process with an organization called IDEO and created what’s called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is agile and human centered at its core. Design Thinking drives innovation and creative problem solving, but utilizes user empathy first, and then moves into the solution creation iterations. Using Design Thinking allows us to develop solutions that are deeply impactful and long-lasting. They belong to the people for whom they were designed.

What does Design Thinking look like?

scribble drawing

I like to start with this graphic. Starting with unclear ideas and problems, we utilize iterations of prototyping and testing to get to clarity. Picture the above graphic as a timeline, starting with the mess of information, and by the end of the iterations, we achieve great clarity.

How is Design Thinking Done?

diagram of the design thinking philosophyImage courtesy of

Design thinking starts with understanding the end user first (Empathize). Really understanding who they are and what it's like to walk in their shoes. By doing this, understanding and defining the problem becomes more real. Notice, problems aren't discussed until we know who the end users really are. Once you have an idea what the problem is, you then start to talk about (or Ideate) solutions. Again, notice we don't talk about solutions until we understand the user and define the problem. Next, we Prototype the solution and then rapidly test the prototype.

Here is where we start the concept of 'Fail Fast'. The point of prototyping is to quickly demonstrate your idea for a product, feature or solution. It's almost guaranteed we will be wrong and we will fail on what we design. So, why take six months to two years to realize you failed, when you know you will from day one?

Once we fail, we learn, and then we iterate. This is not a linear process nor is it black and white. Agile and design thinking is not a black and white process, it's a grey mindset. If you look back at the diagram above, you'll see many cycles, that can happen at any point. You can test, fail and then redefine a problem; or you can test, fail and ideate more; or your prototype can spark new ideas. Or you can test, fail, and realize you learned more about the user. Failure can happen many ways, so it's critical to be able to fail fast and iterate rapidly.

This is why it's important in agile to be flexible and respond to change, versus creating a hard plan or process, which doesn't allow for flexibility or room for failure.

As an organization that strives to be the industry experts for our clients, Design Thinking is a critical piece of our approach. To be able to identify the gaps in the market, we first must understand our clients and customers first. This is the foundation of being able to innovate and make sure we are creating solutions that belong to the users (customers and clients) we serve. Lastly, Design Thinking allows us to remain flexible and iterate as we test new solutions for our clients. 

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