Monday 16 December 2019
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Agile Software Development Benefits from Design Thinking Methodology

Agile Software Development Benefits from Design Thinking Methodology

Design Thinking is not just for design anymore! 

Design Thinking is a total way of design for software!  Tim Brown at IDEO has pioneered this way of thinking, and its what software development should be doing!

What does it  promise?  Increased productivity, better connection to your users, amped up innovation!

Yes, there can be big strides gained, but also there is pain, and pitfalls. You should be looking for a partner who understands this way of development!  If you’re thinking of adopting Design Thinking, or just thinking about your product process in general, read on for a peek into the way we do it.

What does Design Thinking look like in a tech company?

If you are not familiar with Design Thinking, here it is:  it is a process not for how you execute, but for how you decide and determine what you should be building in the first place.

It focuses on a tight, user-driven responses and feedback that, in theory, allows you to validate new feature ideas as quickly as possible before writing a single line of production code.

For a tech company like us, it means this:

  1. Empathize: the product team takes in user feedback
  2. Define: they put the knowledge of what the user wants into the problem pile
  3. Ideate: the product team and the engineering team together generate many valid ways and ideas about how these problems might be solved
  4. Prototype: product & engineering takes the best ideas and throws one or a number of prototypes together. We aren’t keeping this code; it’s purely for validation.
  5. Test: they put those prototypes in front of users and ask them if it solves their problem
  6. Implement: if yes, the engineering team builds the product for real world

The result is that new features are built in small pieces or sprints, which are then validated by users before the “real” development work is begun.

The major point is: everyone in the team including the client company is communicating.  The client and their sales team is not telling the engineering team what to build based on a few conversations. And, the product developers aren’t telling the sales team what to sell. The communication is free and open and must more useful resulting in products that users want to use.

Everyone talks to the user and works together to come up with a product strategy.

How to succeed with Design Thinking and agile engineering

The benefit of being agile is that it lets you break things up into smaller pieces so you can prioritize better. Design Thinking can be used to feed that agile implementation machine at both a micro and a macro level.

On the micro level, it serves to validate individual features.  This type of methodology is in line with the agile framework, it helps us make sure we’re always focusing on the highest priority projects when we do our sprint planning.

Big picture level, it helps to tie everything back in to the company vision, and reminds us to constantly re-evaluate what we’re doing to serve our users better long-term.

Seemed like a natural enough fit to us.

The benefits are from the details

So what does it mean “Full Internal Process”—the six Design Thinking steps, and how to carrying those out with a “Design Thinking” methodology.

Empathize We encourage our client partners  to have a place where anyone at the company can submit a user problem. These problems can come from direct user interviews, articles, forum topics, bug reports, personal experience…really anywhere you might discover true user problems.

Ideate : Anyone should be able to submit ideas for ways to solve established user problems. The guidelines should clearly state that all solutions should be told as a story from the perspective of the user. How will this help, what is the action performed, and what outcome is desired?

Define The product development team reviews the problem pile every week, commenting on what needs further validation or more review work. Based on this review, we assign one of three priorities to each item:

  • Product backlog (high priority)
  • icebox (low priority)
  • rejection (flat-out ‘no’)

Prototype: The product strategy team goes through the backlog pile and divides up the prototypes we want to focus in the next version of the product mapping . The engineering team takes them and puts them into their product mapping and agile planning pipeline.

Test If everything checks out, and it’s a great idea that’s solving a real user problem, we convert it to an initiative that is slotted into the client’s medium term roadmap/

Implement These strategy initiatives become our preliminary plan for what should be in the production pipeline over the next 3-6 months. We also go ahead and define KPIs around each initiative so we can measure success continually over time.

Are there Alternatives?

No, Design Thinking isn’t perfect. But with new complete focus on the user, it’s hard to imagine what would be a better strategy.

We find that this view of how to collect the next ideas is much better than gathering everyone in a room together once a month and let everyone shout ideas. There is also the old way of having a single VP of product engineering who tells all the developers what to do all the time, and make it so that very few people have input on the product process likely resulting in the users not being satisfied and the company losing market share!

A hybrid approach to this idea problem would be have everyone on the team allocate 10% of their time to doing user research and tinkering with new ideas.  This might fuel the ideation part of the design thinking approach.

It’s a classic problem—no system is without its flaws. But at least we have a system that seems to make sense.

In sum

We like Design Thinking and will probably keep promoting it’s use with our clients and beyond with some additional experiments and tweaks.

Please share your ideas about how you are using design thinking!  Have you found any edits to Design Thinking that make it work a little better for all businesses?   We’d love to see how others are using it!

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