Design Thinking, Design Sprint, Lean Startup, and Agile: How do they come together?

With a simple online search, it becomes apparent that there is much confusion around Design Thinking, Design Sprint, Lean, and Agile. Are they exclusive from one another? Is Agile only for developers? When do you use one and not another


The truth is, these can all be valuable tools for entrepreneurs, product development teams, developers and more. Even though they are effective on a standalone basis, thinking about how they can come together can help bring clarification to exactly what each tool is and when each tool can be made most useful.


Design Thinking - An Approach to Finding Solutions

Design Thinking is a design methodology that places stakeholders at the center of innovation. It is all about creative problem solving, finding a solution that will garner the unyielding support of those effected by the problem being explored.


The methodology starts by better understanding a problem by listening to customers’ and other stakeholders’ feedback. After gathering and indulging in enough feedback – usually through interviews or shadowing – the team will be able to more accurately define the problem.


Once the problem is defined in the terms of those who are affected by it, the design thinking team is able to insistently ideate, then eliminate those solutions that do not effectively solve the problem previously defined.


Eventually, there will only be a few viable solutions left on the board. At this point, the team will use low-fidelity prototypes to collect additional feedback from stakeholders to determine which aspects of the proposed solution(s) are and are not effectively solving the problem. The solution and prototype must be repeatedly refined as feedback either disapproves or validates distinctive characteristics.


After multiple iterations of the above activities, the design thinking team receives enough validation from relevant stakeholders to feel confident in the proposed solution. This is basically the end of the Design Thinking Approach.


It is important to understand that Design Thinking is a methodology for finding a solution to a problem. It does not dictate how the proposed solution is to be materially developed or brought to the market. Design Thinking is used to ensure that the actual proposed solution effectively solves stakeholders’ pain points.


Design Sprint - A Process Used by Design Thinkers

Whereas Design Thinking is a methodology that provides a structure for problem solving, the Design Sprint is a prescriptive process that defines exactly how a team should problem solve and cultivate solutions while drawing upon the Design Thinking approach. Put more simply, the Design Sprint is a popular process used by teams to execute the less strictly defined Design Thinking methodology.


As Jake Knapp, the Google Ventures partner who created the Design Sprint, says, “if you’re familiar with lean development or design thinking, you’ll find the Sprint is a practical way to apply those philosophies.”


The Design Sprint (Google Design Sprint) specifies a five-day process that should occur with a diverse team of 4-7 participants all playing distinctive roles. Before starting the process, the problem that will be explored must be chosen and customer research should be collected and made available to be presented during Day 1 of the Sprint.


Day 1:  Set goals for the Design Sprint, present customer and stakeholder research/feedback, understand and state the context of the problem.


Day 2:  Use Day 1’s progress as inspiration for ideation. Team members work mostly individually to sketch solutions to the problem.


Day 3:  The team must unite to choose the best sketches that solve the business problem. Elements from top sketches are combined and turned into a storyboard, mapping out a more detailed experience of the proposed solution.


Day 4:  On the fourth day, the team builds a realistic prototype. The Google Design Sprint calls for a prototype that can be created within one day that displays the value proposition of the solution.


Day 5:  The final day is all about testing the prototype with customers and other stakeholders to understand the effectiveness of the proposed solution to the problem. The entire Design Sprint team will observe one-on-one interviews as interviewees interact with the prototype and offer personal input.


At the end of this five-day process, there may or may not be a solution ready to bring further into implementation. However, the team will walk away with invaluable insights that would be difficult to otherwise obtain. If the team did leave confident with a solution, it can choose to iterate through the Design Sprint process however many times necessary to find and confirm that next big solution.


Lean Startup - An Approach to Implementation


Like Design Thinking, Lean Startup is a methodology and not a clearly defined process. Unlike Design Thinking, Lean Startup methodology is an approach to bringing an actual solution to market. It relies on validated learning to ensure that proposed solutions are successfully being developed.


Lean Startup has its origins in lean manufacturing, a mindset of manufacturing from the perspective of the customer to save time and limit waste. The methodology is largely focused on the creation of a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) to get in the hands of customers; this MVP will then continuously be updated and made more complete until the company finds a product market fit.


Similar to Design Thinking approaches, Lean Startup involves many iterations; only this time, the positive and negative feedback of stakeholders is used through product strategy or business model development instead of product or solution ideation.


In its most basic form, Lean Startup suggests that the team quickly builds an MVP, tests the MVP in the real market while collecting data, and then pivots the business or product strategy based on the interpretation of the market data. In a perfect world, this will be repeated until the team is ready to stick with and use growth hacking or some other growth approach to bring the product or business model to the mass market.


Agile - An Approach to Technical Development


Agile methodology is an approach to technical development that mirrors the iterative characteristics of Design Thinking and Lean Startup. The most straightforward way of thinking about Agile Methodology is as a lean manner of organizing the often times complex work of technical development.


In contrast to a more traditional, linear approach to development, Agile uses multiple consecutive time-constrained periods called “sprints” to complete a particular catalog of high priority deliverables (do not get this confused with a Design Sprint!). Each sprint involves individually defining these deliverables, then building the deliverables, followed by testing and deploying the deliverables.


The point of breaking up the development activity into separate sprints is to establish collaboration between a diverse group. As each sprint is being completed, deliverables are to be reviewed and improved based on feedback from the project team, the target customer, and other stakeholders.


Using All Three Methodologies Together


Once a team or individual recognizes a problem that should be further analyzed, Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile methodologies can be used successively to define, design, develop, and bring to market an effective solution.


The above diagram displays how these can be brought together to form a complete methodology to bring deliverables to market. Keep in mind that Agile may be less useful to those who are not working with technical development. Now, the real challenge lays ahead: growth.




Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile Development are all lean practices – meaning they waste limited resources – to help design and bring solutions successfully to market.


At their cores, these approaches are very alike: they rely on consistent customer/stakeholder research and feedback loops to increase the chances that the solution and developed product will hold product-market fit. Even though there seems to be considerable overlap in these methodologies due to their underlying similarities, it is clear that all three approaches play different roles:


Design Thinking – An approach to better understand a problem, then design a solution based on customer feedback; a Design Sprint is a certain execution of Design Thinking methodologies.


Lean Startup – An approach to execute the development process of a proposed solution through iterations. The Minimal Viable Product (MVP) is used to confirm or reject market validation.


Agile – An approach applied throughout technical development to promote collaboration between stakeholders as the actual solution is being built. This approach can effectively be used to build the MVP in Lean Startup.


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