How to integrate Design Thinking into Scrum development

Published on April 10, 2020

The original article was published on LinkedIn

Credits for image: Julee Bellomo by IDEO; Sources for other images are directly linked to the images

Nowadays, companies are excited about innovative approaches and their implementation into the working process. They are trying to keep up with accelerated software development and stay ahead of competition. The path most IT organizations take is Agile Scrum and Design Thinking, which in theory guarantees successful completion of the projects, but only some companies triumph, while others need improvement in the integration. In fact, according to the PMI, 14% of IT projects fail, 31% didn’t meet their goals, 43% exceeded their initial budgets, and 49% did not meet the deadline. One of the main reasons for that failure is unclear requirements, in other words, user needs. 39% of failed projects reported that they had unclear requirements and although their development process went well, the end user still was not satisfied.

What is the core reason for IT projects to fail? Some people claim it depends on the methodology you are using while developing the final product and most successful ones in practice are considered to be Agile Scrum and Design Thinking. So what exactly are they and why should you blend two of those to avoid being in that 14%.


Agile Scrum and Design Thinking are two different theories, but they perfectly unite to create better software solutions.

Agile is perfectly described in its own manifesto, but in a few words, it is a methodology where solution evolves through short iterations, with cross-functional and independent teams working alongside with the clients.

Design Thinking is a user-centered approach which seeks to understand customers and their needs. This approach encourages us to always ask what human needs are behind the business solution we create.

Why do these two should work together?

Scrum is a framework of Agile which ensures you are solving the problem efficiently, but it doesn’t guarantee that you are solving the right problem. This actually is one of the weak areas of Scrum, where filling and maintaining backlog sometimes is more important than taking a moment and asking: “is this what we should be creating?”. This is where Design Thinking comes into play.

Design Thinking is a human-centered technique to solve problems of businesses, countries and our lives in an innovative way. To put yourself into users shoes you should follow these phases:

Empathise - the main idea of this stage is to understand the user, their needs and problems that need to be solved. There are different strategies to empathise stage, you can observe and engage people in order to understand their motivation and experiences, or:

  • Conduct Interviews - goal is to uncover as much insight as possible with well structured questions and open conversation;

  • Ask What? How? When? - Consider these questions when observing users behaviour, it will help you translate observation into users intentions;

  • Empathy maps - four sides of Empathy map quadrant (Says, Thinks, Does, Feels) help you to create user personas more efficiently;

Define - during this stage we transform gathered information into the problem. There are two stages for this method, first we do analysis to break down complex concepts into smaller fractions, then we do synthesis to form the whole idea. Now we are ready to create a problem statement create a problem statement.

Good problem statements should start with the verb “Create”, “Define” or “Adapt” and meet three critirias: human-centered, broad to have creative freedom and narrow enough to be manageable. Problem statement is always combination of user, need and insight and looks like this:

[User] needs [verb] because [insight]

Ideate - this stage is all about using ideation techniques to generate as many ideas as possible and then choose which one solves the problem most effectively. Unrestrained free thinking aims to generate a large quantity of ideas that probably will inspire even more new ideas. The team can filter more practical, innovative and unique ideas.

No matter what ideation technique team uses (Mindmap, Analogies, Brainstorm, Braindump...) members should always follow predefined rules, like: setting a time limit, excluding judgment, visualisation, etc.

Last two steps of the Design Thinking process, Prototype and Test, are where we can synchronize Design Thinking with Scrum. Now back to the question: “is this what we should be creating?” - YES, we are much likely closer to our user needs than before. Now, as the below diagram shows, you can start your typical scrum ceremonies to deliver the final product. If somehow it turns out that you are off the road, your team always can move back to the Empathize stage, redefine your problem and continue development with Scrum until you create the desired product.

How exactly?

Now, when we are close to our client and know more about his needs we can fill in the backlog and continue our scrum development process. First several iterations should be short (less than a week), with low-fidelity and low-design products. Close collaboration between developers and UX designers is essential, which brings us to the next topic: who should be in the team?

Scrum has three essential types of members:

  • Product Owner - champion of the product, who understands business requirements and client needs. It's the Product Owner who maintains prioritized backlog with user stories.

  • Scrum Master - is a head of sprint planning, stand-up, sprint review, and the sprint retrospective. It’s his responsibility to monitor scrum processes.

  • Development Team - people who get the job done, they take part in every scrum ceremony and are full-fledged members of the scrum team.

But what about the Design Thinking team? Are they in different departments (if one exists)? What is their profession?

One of the biggest charms of Design Thinking is that everyone can be a designer, no matter if you write code the entire day or manage office supplies, you can be a designer and take part in all those phases.

Despite the fact that there are no described roles in Design Thinking, it surely needs a facilitator, a person who is experienced and familiar with all the phases and techniques available in this methodology.

Facilitator should coordinate all the phases and generate results, like problem statements, records of brainstorming, etc.

As a final word about the team, it can be mixed from people from the scrum team and from anyone within and outside of the organization.


To wrap up, integration of Design Thinking into the Scrum framework process can lead to more user-oriented development at the beginning of the project.

Filling a backlog with user stories to just “start creating something” is excluded when these two work together. Companies should understand that it’s not always cost-effective to continuously run development processes, when user needs and requirements are still blurry.

Mixing these two methodologies and including the Scrum team into every process can lead to better and faster development process and user-centered product.