Spot the Difference: Design Thinking vs Design Sprints vs Agile Sprints

Difference Design Thinking Design Sprints Agile SprintsHover Image
Isn't that kind of Design Thinking?

They asked. And then:

How is it different to Agile?

When I talk about Design Sprints in my workshops or training sessions, at some point, the same questions come up:

What is the difference between Design Thinking and a Design Sprint?
How do we know when to use a Design Sprint or Design Thinking?
We already do Agile Sprints!

When we talk about innovation methods, there are a couple of proven frameworks for product strategy, design, and management.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand when to use each one and what benefits they bring.

So I will explain the similarities and differences between each framework and when to use each one.

By the end of this article, you will understand the differences between Design Thinking, Design Sprints, and Agile Sprints and for what problems they are best suited.


First, let’s look at the origins of these frameworks.

Origins of Design Thinking, Design Sprints and Agile SprintsHover Image

Design Thinking: Surprisingly, businesses didn’t always use Design Thinking to solve their problems. Many CEOs preferred traditional, logical, and linear approaches to problem-solving – or even no method at all!


Creativity and innovation are messy and unpredictable, and managing them is tricky.

Most CEOs didn’t see how much a human-centered approach to innovation and creativity can contribute to the success of a business.

Enter Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success. – Tim Brown

Brown started to use Design Thinking in 1978 (though its origins began in the 1940s).

Design Thinking gave innovation a process, which meant innovation could now be managed.

Now there was no need to sacrifice creativity, making it easier to meet the changing needs of customers. This meant happy CEOs and fulfilled employees.

Design Sprints: Design Sprints are relatively recent, created by Jake Knapp in 2010. Knapp was inspired by various processes and frameworks. His work at Google and their product development culture, IDEO’s Design Thinking workshops, and his own experience building products.

The sprint is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. – Jake Knapp

From 2010 to 2012, he perfected and refined the process with Google Ventures. In 2013 they published a how-to series and the Sprint Book in 2016, all of which helped spread the idea, and now Design Sprints are rapidly gaining popularity. You can read the full history of the Design Sprint here.

Agile Sprints: Agile comes in different methodologies. The most common ones are Scrum, Lean, Kanban, and XP. Scrum, a type of Agile process, was first written about in the Harvard Business Review in 1986, with companies starting to implement it in 1993.

It was developed by Jeth Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, in the early 1990s. They believed that to get the best results from a project, teams should have objectives, freedom to determine how to reach those objectives, and the ability to self-organize.

Scrum involves using time-boxed development cycles to deliver working software at the end of each cycle – think of it as completing a project milestone every 1 – 2 weeks.

Did you know it’s called Scrum, after a rugby term used for a team working towards a common goal?


Before we dive any deeper, let’s establish the definition of those terms.

Definitions: Design Thinking, Design Sprints, Agile SprintsHover Image

Design Thinking 👉 At its core, Design Thinking is a set of principles or philosophy rather than a method. It is an open process, consisting of many different exercises and activities.

Originally, Design Thinking was developed by designers as a problem-definition and problem-solving approach for creating or improving products. However, most business problems can be solved with Design Thinking.

Think of it as a cooking class where you learn the kitchen basics and the art of cooking. Just as you follow recipes, play with different ingredients, and test out new things, in the same way, you can use Design Thinking to develop innovation.

Design Thinking focuses on what the end-user wants and prioritizes consumers’ needs above everything.

This makes sense when you think about it because businesses should exist to serve their customers and solve their problems. That’s why Design Thinking has helped lots of companies become hugely successful.

Design Sprints 👉 A Design Sprint is a four-day process where you build and test a prototype or product that solves a specific, complex business problem.

It is a system for coming up with new product ideas and validating ideas.

During the four days, you and your team follow a strict, step-by-step process that involves defining the problem scope, ideating & deciding on competing solutions, then translating that idea into an interactive prototype. Simply put, you build and validate a solution through user tests – you can read more about the Design Sprint process here.

A Design Sprint is like a powerful recipe, where the ingredients are:

☑️ business strategy,

☑️ innovation,

☑️ behavior science,

☑️ and Design Thinking concepts.

The dish is a fully tested solution or prototype.

Design Sprint Food AnalogyHover Image

Agile Sprints 👉 Agile Sprints are not related to Design Sprints, despite the similar name. Teams use Agile Sprints to break down the development of a complex product into small, manageable tasks and time frames.

For example, software project management and development where the overall task is extensive and too hard to tackle in one go would be an ideal project for an Agile Sprint.

Agile Sprints work well as the next step after a Design Sprint.

When you finish a Design Sprint, you have everything ready. For example, you know what you want the product to do, what you want to achieve, the app you want to create, and how you want it to look.

The project and development team are given this information and would use an Agile Sprint to get the product made.

When to Use Design Thinking

Sometimes in business, you come across large problems that are hard to define and it’s difficult to understand the issues that customers are facing from your own point of view.

These kinds of problems are complex because they don’t have an existing, proven solution.

The best way to solve them is to experience the problem from the user’s perspective.

For example, Airbnb struggled to take bookings when they first started – what was stopping customers from completing a booking?

Or, as Pillpack wanted to know, how do you help the elderly keep track of all their different medications and when to take them?

Both of those problems were solved with Design Thinking principles.

The companies interviewed and worked closely with their end-users to find out exactly what issues they faced and how best to help their users overcome them.

Airbnb discovered low-resolution photos were preventing customers from booking, so it taught its users how to take high-quality pictures.

Pillpack developed a solution that simplified the process of receiving prescriptions and remembering what to take and when. You can read more about these and other problems solved with Design Thinking here.

Here is a typical 5-stage Design Thinking model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford ( These stages are not always sequential, and teams often run them in parallel, out of order, and repeat them in an iterative fashion.

Design Thinking - 5 Stage ProcessHover Image

When to Use Design Sprints

In contrast to Design Thinking, a Design Sprint is a more sequential process that follows a strict schedule.

The Design Sprint 2.0 ProcessHover Image

Here are a few scenarios where a Design Sprint approach might be the most effective direction to take:

1 – Starting a new project and aligning your team

If you’re starting a new project in your company and you need to get your team aligned on the end goal, a Design Sprint will help you do that.

During a Design Sprint, your team works together and is on the same project with the same end goal from the beginning. Also, because a Design Sprint has a specific time frame, it’s easier to keep everyone focused.

It’s much more effective than trying to align everyone with documentation or follow-up conversations.

2 – When you want speed, efficiency, and focus

If you’re developing a new product, digital solution, or prototype, you want to go to market as fast as possible. You also want to ensure that what your team creates is good enough and ready for use by customers.

This can sometimes be a hard mix to get right, but this is one of the largest benefits of a Design Sprint.

Over the four days that your team is involved in a Sprint, they will work fast without sacrificing quality. The activities during a Design Sprint help your team focus on the most important features, stay focused on the main goal and be confident that their solution is good enough because it gets validated by real end-users.

For more scenarios where a Design Sprint makes sense, have a look at this article called When to Use a Design Sprint.

When to Use an Agile Sprint/Scrum

As mentioned earlier, an Agile Sprint is a good follow-up to a Design Sprint.

It’s most commonly used to develop a software product.

The following diagram illustrates a typical Agile Scrum process.

The Agile Scrum ProcessHover Image

Agile sprints use a similar methodology in terms of discovering and building as they go along rather than forcing everyone to plan everything before starting development.

So if you are happy for your team to learn as they go, allow them to work flexibly, and are able to have the end-user involved, an Agile Sprint is a good option.

You can learn more about Waterfall vs. Agile in this article.


Since businesses started to use processes and frameworks for innovation, they have become better at solving their customers’ problems.

Purpose of each frameworkHover Image

Design Thinking created a massive shift toward prioritizing customers’ needs, meaning that both businesses and consumers benefit.

If you are not experienced with Design Thinking but need fast and usable results, I would recommend a Design Sprint as you can start straight away and don’t have to choose from a variety of options which can be confusing.

Whilst you can use Design Thinking to design a new app or solve a major business problem, without experience, it takes time to choose the right recipes and ingredients.

Agile Sprints are different and used mainly for software development.

Methods, Tools and SystemsHover Image

So, as a rule of thumb:

If you have a clear idea for the right problems to test or an existing product to improve, do a Design Sprint. You will have a thought-out and proven process model to follow.

If you don’t have a clear idea yet or your problem is not well defined, start with some ingredients from Design Thinking, like user observations and problem-finding interviews.

When to use which methodHover Image

Last but not least: I would always recommend the tool that allows you to achieve the fastest usable results!

I hope that helps answer any questions and clarifies the differences between Design Sprints, Design Thinking, and Agile Sprints.

Get in Touch

If you have any questions or are wondering which Sprint is right for your business, please get in touch.