Building better products with Design Thinking and Agile Development

Categories: Agile DevOps

by Biju Kalayil

One day I left my car with multiple grocery bags in each hand and an office bag on my shoulder. When I reached the door of my home, I bent down, placed the bags on the floor, retrieved my keys from my pocket, and unlocked and opened the door. I then bent down again, picked up the bags, and stepped into my house. After several more trips from the grocery store, I had improvised by keeping the keys in my hand along with the bags so that I wouldn’t need to bend down, place the bags on the floor, unlock and open the door, bend again, pick up the bags, and enter my home. Over the next few years, I came up with more creative ways like calling my son and having him open the door for me as I approached. I continued improvising; I would sometimes walk in with a few bags and send my son to fetch the remaining bags from the car. I tried to improvise more by sending my son the grocery list, but he rebelled. I went back to the previous version that worked best.

My wife, on the other hand, is a much better designer than me; she figured out the best solution from the beginning – text me the grocery list. I am smart enough to know that although her design is wonderful, it won’t work for me.

The above story illustrates some key concepts of Design Thinking:

  1. We are all designers, consciously or not, anytime we are solving a problem.
  2. To design the right solution, we need participation from a subset of users who accurately represent the user base.
  3. To design the right solution, we need to prototype, test, refine, and repeat.
  4. Over design can cause issues. We have to find a balance.

David Kelly, the founder of IDEO and a design thinking pioneer has a more sophisticated definition of Design Thinking:

“Design thinking utilizes elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.” 

Another famous person had this to say about design.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

We all know that the phenomenal success of “iPhone” has less to do with all the technology it brings to your fingertips but more because you can do almost anything with the tips of your finger.

Over the last several years the world has become more competitive and big corporations with established products are facing stiff competition from other companies as well as from unknowns sitting in their dorm room with a laptop. It has become much easier to build lightweight products, to distribute them to potential users, and to disrupt existing businesses. Businesses invest heavily in innovation to stay a step ahead of the competition. Innovation labs can build better and more useful products by using Design Thinking.

Think about anything that you have designed – when was the last time your first idea was the best one? You would have tweaked it a few times before perfecting it.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking calls for a high degree of empathy and understanding of end users, and an iterative process of developing new ideas, challenging assumptions, and redefining problems, with the goal of identifying alternative solutions that might not necessarily be apparent the first time.

Blog 18-21 - DesignThinking

Design thinking encourages businesses to think about the human need that drives a particular business need. The process of Design Thinking provides a user-centric language to discuss the opportunities available to the organization. Framing the problem correctly by involving the right blend of users and the generation of multiple solutions to solve the problem allows businesses,  together with their customers, to develop a common understanding of both the challenge and possible solutions.

The world of software development is adopting an Agile methodology to build new products and services. The benefits of Agile’s incremental improvement helps businesses provide better and simpler offerings that are really useful to the customer rather than building complicated and clunky ones.

What is Agile development?

Because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many – Star Trek III

The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop the drain – Star Trek III

Agile software development describes an approach to software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams and their customer/end user.

In agile software development, testing is completed in the same iteration as programming. Because testing is done in every iteration, users can frequently use the resulting features immediately and validate the value. After the users know the real value of the updated piece of software, they can make better decisions about the software’s future features. Having a value retrospective and software re-planning session in each iteration helps the team continuously adapt the plans so as to maximize the value the software delivers.

This iterative approach supports a product rather than a project mindset. Iterative product development allows the software to evolve in response to changes in business environment or market requirements.

Agile is all about less documentation and better implementation.

Design Thinking in Agile Development

We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we are curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths – Walt Disney

Design Thinking can help the Agile way of building software at the micro and macro levels.

On the micro level, Design Thinking comes to play at the Sprint planning phase. It helps us answer the simple question – what are the most important features that I want to include in this Sprint? Prioritizing the features that are most important to the users helps build something that will provide value to the customers.

Any feature can be implemented in many different ways. Product managers can implement design thinking principles of empathizing and Ideation to build multiple mockups for a particular feature or use story and let the customers pick the best ones rather than being influenced by their own bias.

Another way to use Design Thinking at the micro level is by using A/B testing. Some companies are using this with great success and just the mere change in positioning of a text is bringing in increased revenue.

On the macro level, it ties everything back into our company vision, and reminds us to constantly re-evaluate what we’re doing to serve our users better long-term. Companies which listen to their customers see increased revenue in the long term.

I had the opportunity of seeing this in action during one of my recent assignments. The product owner would build multiple mockups and collaboratively work with some of the users to pick the best of all and then seek improvement by using another user group. Of course, the process takes more time than cranking out ideas sitting in the cubicle but the outcome is more satisfying to the team that built it and the users that use it.

Plans are of little importance but Planning is essential – Winston Churchill

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