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How trying a design thinking process can mean better Agile

If your team is stuck in an Agile rut, one option might be design thinking. Columnist Jennifer Lent explains how design thinking can bring app developers closer to end users.

An idea known as design thinking keeps popping up on my radar screen. At a recent dinner party, I heard a guy who works for a Boston application development agency use the term.

I knew that a design thinking process was central to building a slick mobile app for a big name brand. But until I spoke to Allegra Burnette, principal analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., I didn't fully understand its broad relevance to Agile practitioners.

"Design thinking is a collaborative, problem-solving process across the organization," said Burnette, co-author of the February 2017 Forrester report, "Integrate Design Thinking into Agile Development."

The term design thinking can be misleading. It's not about how software looks and feels, Burnette told me.

"Designers and design thinking are not the same thing. It's not about the visual."

I asked Burnette how Agile and a design thinking process work together, and how teams can best integrate design thinking into their projects. Here are some highlights of my conversation with her.

Design thinking and Agile

Design thinking and Agile are a good fit because both emphasize testing and the ability to change course and do something different when things aren't working, Burnette said.

Designers and design thinking are not the same thing. It's not about the visual.
Allegra Burnetteprincipal analyst, Forrester Research

"Agile is about quickly developing, testing and implementing smaller chunks of work. Design thinking is about quickly understanding and defining a problem, ideating a range of solutions and testing them out through iterative prototypes," according to the Forrester report.

Integrating the design process with the development process is challenging for Agile pros, who are often unaccustomed to taking design considerations into account.

"Traditionally, design thinking happens at the beginning of a project; then there's a handoff to the development team," Burnette said. "There is no weaving between the two. We need better ways to work together."

Developing empathy

A good design thinking process demands that the designers and developers come together at the same table, and it recognizes that developing empathy among team members can ease that process. Burnette has unique insights into how to make that happen.

Before joining Forrester, she was the creative director of digital media for MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. She oversaw designers and developers, and had to bring them together to apply a design thinking approach to the projects on which they worked.

Uniting disparate teams is always challenging. The odds of success are better when individual members are empathetic; that is, they have the capacity to walk in someone else's shoes, to understand what another person is experiencing. Can empathy be taught? Burnette said it can.

"You need to turn it into something that is not abstract," she told me. "Talk to people face to face. People connect with names and stories."

She offered an example. At MoMA, Burnette observed how isolated her software developers were while working on a new software application.

"They had no visibility into its use or who would use it," she said.

She knew they could deliver a better product -- and work more effectively with designers -- if they developed empathy for the people who would ultimately use their software.

"We got our developers down to the MoMA lobby, and they showed prototypes [of mobile apps] to museum-goers."

The experiment was a success. Developers talked about the people they met by name, and mulled over what they said, Burnette told me. In other words, they developed empathy for the target user of the application under development.

"They became invested in the end product," she said.

If your target user isn't milling around the lobby, resources, such as a site like UserTesting, can help, Burnette said. The site lets you watch videos of target users interacting with your application or website. The idea is to see firsthand what people are saying about your software.

The process of developing empathy as part of the design thinking process is not easy or automatic. But it's worth trying.

"Agile can get so rigid," Burnette said. "Design thinking is about how to insert change into it."

Is design thinking part of your Agile practice? Let me know

Next Steps

Use design thinking for your mobile workflow

Getting to the nitty gritty of Agile design

How DesignOps brings developers and designers closer together

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