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Customer Centricity and Design Thinking

Customer centricity and design thinking comprise the first dimension of Agile product delivery. This mindset and way of doing business puts the customer first, at the core of the enterprise, to provide positive customer experiences and to build long-term relationships. As a result, customer-centric businesses typically increase employee engagement and more thoroughly satisfy customer needs.

Teams apply design thinking to ensure products and services that Agile Release Trains (ARTs) create are desired by customers and users while confirming that the solution is feasible, economically viable, and sustainable throughout its life cycle.

Customer Centricity

Whenever a customer-centric enterprise makes a decision, it deeply considers the effect it will have on its end users.1 This thinking motivates teams to do the following:

  • Focus on the customer. Apply market and user segmentation to align and focus on specific, targeted groups based on common characteristics.

  • Understand the customer’s needs. Invest the time to identify and truly understand customer needs and build solutions that address those needs.

  • Think and feel like the customer. Be empathetic and see the world from the customer’s viewpoint.

  • Build whole-product solutions. Design a complete solution for the user’s needs, ensuring that the initial and long-term experiences of the customer are optimal and evolve as needed.

  • Create customer lifetime value. Move beyond a transactional mindset, where customers do a one-time exchange of money for a product. Instead, focus on the lifetime value of a customer. The resulting long-term engagement from this approach enables businesses to create added customer value, often in ways that were not anticipated when the solution was first released.2

Design Thinking

Design thinking represents a profoundly different approach to product and solution development, in which divergent and convergent techniques are applied to understand a problem, design a solution, and deliver it to the market.

Design thinking simultaneously considers what is desirable from a human point of view, what is technologically feasible, and what is economically viable to create sustainable solutions.3 It has three main activities, as shown in Figure 7-2.


Figure 7-2. Design thinking activities

  1. Understand the problem. The first diamond in Figure 7-2 helps teams truly understand, rather than simply assume, what problem they are trying to solve. It involves spending time with people who are affected by the problem, exploring different aspects of it, and, indeed, sometimes discovering other, more critical problems that can be addressed. This part of the process provides insight into the requirements and benefits of a desirable solution.

  2. Design the right solution. The second diamond encourages the product team to explore different ways to address the problem, including seeking inspiration from elsewhere and co-designing with a range of different people while collaborating internally to build a technically feasible solution. Delivery involves testing various alternatives on a small scale, rejecting those that will not work, and improving the ones that will.

  3. Validate that the solution is sustainable. To better assure economic success (SAFe Principle #1), teams understand and manage solution economics to ensure that the product or solution will return more value or revenue than the cost to develop and maintain it.

Each diamond focuses on both divergent and convergent thinking. During divergence, choices are being created (understanding, exploring), while during convergence (evaluating options), decisions are being made.4 While presented as a sequential flow, in practice design thinking is an iterative, nonlinear process. New insights and learnings may require returning to an earlier step in the process. Feedback from the actual use of products and services may also motivate a new cycle of design thinking.

Design thinking embraces the reality that the likelihood of creating a perfect product on the first release is slim. Instead, design thinking provides the tools to help teams navigate their path to success by focusing on the intersection of desirability, feasibility, and viability. And of course, the product must be sustainable by the business. In other words, design thinking measures success by these attributes:

  • Desirable. Do customers want this?

  • Feasible. Can we actually build it?

  • Viable. Should we build it?

  • Sustainable. Are we managing the product so that it returns profit or value to the business over its life cycle?

Moreover, design thinking is not a ‘once-and-done’ approach. In today’s fast-moving digital world, no idea is ever truly complete. Successive applications of design thinking incrementally advance the solution over its product life cycle.

In the following sections, we’ll explore some of the useful tools that teams use to apply customer centricity and design thinking.

Market and User Research

The foundation of customer centricity and design thinking consists of market and user research, which creates actionable insights into the problems customers face and the solution’s functional and operational requirements. Market research tends to drive strategy (who we are serving), while user research primarily drives design (how we meet their needs) (Figure 7-3).


Figure 7-3. Market and user research explore different aspects of the problem and solution space

Research activities occur continually and are supported through exploration in the CDP, product data analytics, and various feedback loops. Learning gained during market and user research also defines the solution context—the operational environment for a solution—which provides a basic understanding of requirements, usage, installation, operation, and support of the solution itself.

Conducting market research also helps determine the nature of the solution context. This context is primarily determined by whether the product is: 1) a general solution intended to be used by a significant group of customers or 2) a custom-built solution that is built and designed for a specific customer.

Understanding the solution context identifies external constraints that are often outside the organization’s control. Some aspects of solution context are variable (undecided or negotiable), and some are fixed (decided), and finding ways to manage this balance is crucial to value delivery. It impacts development priorities, and solution intent such as features, and Non-Functional Requirements (NFRs).

Identify the Personas, Problems, and Goals

Supported by market research, the next critical aspect of design thinking is to understand who will benefit from the product’s design. This information is captured by establishing personas, fictional characters (Figure 7-4) that represent different customer types that will similarly use the product. Personas help understand and empathize with the end users’ problems, experiences, behaviors, and goals.


Figure 7-4. Personas drive key design activities

Refine Personas and Establish Empathy

To further enhance the development of desirable solutions, customer-centric enterprises use empathy throughout the design process. Empathy maps (Figure 7-5) are design thinking tools that help teams imagine what a specific customer is thinking, feeling, hearing, and seeing as they do their daily jobs and use the product. The higher the degree of empathy that a team has for its customers, the more likely the team will be able to design a desirable solution. In turn, empathy maps help refine the personas.


Figure 7-5. Empathy map canvas

Customer Journey Maps

Customer journey maps identify the process that a person goes through to accomplish a goal5 (Figure 7-6). They illustrate the experiences that customers have as they navigate a product from first engagement to achieving their objectives and thereby establish a positive and long-term relationship with the brand.


Figure 7-6. Customer journey map for a consumer loan

Story Maps

Story maps are an approach to organizing and prioritizing stories (Figure 7-7). They make the users’ workflow explicit and visible and show the relationships between user activities and the solution’s features and stories required to implement them. Story maps also help prioritize a group of related stories and ensure a conceptually complete set of system behavior is released together.6


Figure 7-7. User story maps establish a relationship between user activities and features and user stories

Improving Design Feedback Through Prototypes

Prototyping creates functional models that provide initial validation of how a solution will potentially address the problem to be solved. They can be anything from paper drawings or mockups to a fully functioning aspect of the solution.

Prototyping helps the team clarify their understanding of the problem and reduces the risk of solution development. These mockups or models can be used for getting fast feedback or gaining clarity of the requirements for the desired feature or solution and new intellectual property and patent filing.

To gain actionable feedback, teams should strive to leverage the lowest-cost, fastest form of prototyping that best suits the learning in each situation.

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