Can You Combine Design Thinking with DevOps in Software Engineering?

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Design thinking, known as a human-centered approach, involves solving complex problems by understanding users, defining their needs, ideating creative solutions, prototyping and testing them, and iterating the process until an optimal outcome is achieved.

On the other hand, DevOps is a methodology that intertwines software development and operations teams and paves the way for delivering software products and services with increased speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness.

What happens when the two meet? Can they be a force multiplier in software engineering? That is our question for the day.

Key Takeaway:

  • Design thinking and DevOps have origins in different fields but share common principles like user focus, collaboration, experimentation, feedback, and iteration.
  • Integrating design thinking into DevOps involves aligning the phases of “empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test” with DevOps’s “plan, code, build, and run.”
  • SAP and IBM are companies that showcase the combining of the two disciplines.
  • Challenges include resistance to change, but those who successfully align the two methods can find plenty to celebrate.

Design Thinking and DevOps: Origins and Evolution

Both design thinking and DevOps have emerged as central methodologies, enhancing user-centricity, promoting agility, and driving innovation in software development and delivery.

DevOps traces its roots to software engineering, system administration, and quality assurance, expanding its influence across Web development, cloud computing, and data science.

Design thinking originates in design, engineering, and psychology, with applications spanning product development, service design, social innovation, and education.

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Where they cross over as disciplines include user focus, collaboration, experimentation, feedback, and iteration.

How Design Thinking and DevOps Work Together

Integrating design thinking into DevOps necessitates a nuanced understanding of their respective steps and tools and an approach that employs the strengths of both methodologies.

The “empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test” phases of design thinking align with DevOps’s “plan, code, build, and run” stages, forming a cycle that supplements the software development lifecycle.

Design thinking tools and techniques include interviews, surveys, observations, personas, journey maps, brainstorming, sketching, and usability testing, which guide the exploration of user needs and the creativity of creative solutions.

Simultaneously, DevOps tools and techniques, such as version control, code review, continuous integration, continuous delivery, configuration management, containerization, and cloud computing, create an integrated pipeline accommodating iterative design processes within a continuous delivery framework.

Moreover, integrating design thinking and DevOps extends beyond merely synchronizing processes and tools; it cultivates a collaborative mindset within cross-functional teams.

This collaborative culture can, in turn, encourage developers, designers, and operations professionals to work cohesively throughout the development lifecycle.

As a result, in theory, communication barriers are broken down as team members utilize their diverse skills and perspectives, contributing to a more comprehensive and refined product.

In addition, the iterative nature of design thinking aligns with the continuous improvement philosophy of DevOps, promoting a culture where feedback loops are not only encouraged but explicitly embedded in the development process.

The loop ensures that the evolving software meets technical requirements and aligns with user expectations and market demands, resulting in a functional and genuinely impactful product.

Examples in the Real World

SAP created its Leonardo platform, a digital innovation system that uses cutting-edge technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI)machine learningblockchain, and the Internet of Things by using design thinking and DevOps.

The teams followed a four-phase design thinking framework: Explore, Discover, Design, and Deliver to understand the business drivers, user needs, and technical feasibility of the solution.

SAP also integrated and automated the development and delivery processes using DevOps tools and practices, such as cloud-native development, microservices, and continuous integration and delivery. This enabled SAP to deliver innovative, user-centric, and reliable solutions with SAP Leonardo.

Meanwhile, IBM developed the conversational AI platform, IBM’s Watson Assistant, utilizing design thinking and DevOps, and company team members are advocates, as described by one senior solution manager.

Best Practices and Tips

To ensure an effective implementation of design thinking and DevOps, the following best practices and tips can be a help:

  • Align the goals and perspectives of the design, development, and operations teams to ensure a shared vision and understanding of user needs, the solution, and the value proposition.
  • Involve users and stakeholders throughout the process, soliciting and incorporating their feedback and suggestions, validating assumptions and hypotheses, and adopting a culture of co-creation and co-innovation.
  • Embrace a culture of experimentation and learning from failures. Test ideas and prototypes early and often, iterate, and improve solutions based on feedback and data.
  • Automate and optimize the process, employing appropriate tools and techniques to enhance the software delivery lifecycle. Reduce manual and repetitive tasks to increase the speed and quality of the software product or service.

Challenges and Solutions

The integration of design thinking and DevOps brings some challenges as well. However, these challenges can be effectively addressed.

Resistance to change is challenging as team members, accustomed to traditional methodologies, show reluctance and skepticism toward integrating design thinking and DevOps. Proactively communicating benefits, comprehensive training, and celebrating successes are essential to address this.

The diverse skillset requirements of design thinking and DevOps present another challenge. Integrating individuals with varying expertise and backgrounds can lead to disparities in understanding and collaboration.

Addressing skillset diversity involves forming cross-functional teams with varied expertise, fostering collaboration, and ensuring seamless integration. A communicative culture within these teams promotes comprehensive problem-solving, contributing to cohesive and effective design thinking and DevOps implementation.

Continuous Improvement and Recommendations

Despite the impactful outcomes, it is vital to acknowledge that design thinking and DevOps are dynamic, evolving approaches that demand continuous improvement — which can be scary.

Therefore, it is essential to focus on continuous improvement. Recommendations for future research and practice include:

  • Exploring best practices and challenges in various domains to enhance understanding of the repercussions of integrating design thinking and DevOps.
  • Developing and testing innovative methods and tools, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to further facilitate and enhance the integration of design thinking and DevOps.
  • Measuring the quantifiable impact of the integration on user satisfaction, time-to-market, and collaboration metrics to demonstrate the value of this holistic approach.

The Bottom Line

The convergence of design thinking and DevOps can be a valuable tool in the right company, creating an integrated approach that can result in impactful outcomes, increased user satisfaction, expedited time-to-market, and better collaboration.

It may need experts and advocates in both disciplines, and challenges can include resistance to change, but when it works well, you open the door to creativity and innovation, and you can really unlock the power of your workforce.

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Assad Abbas
Tenured Associate Professor
Assad Abbas
Tenured Associate Professor

Dr Assad Abbas received his PhD from North Dakota State University (NDSU), USA. He is a tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at COMSATS University Islamabad (CUI), Islamabad campus, Pakistan. Dr. Abbas has been associated with COMSATS since 2004. His research interests are mainly but not limited to smart health, big data analytics, recommender systems, patent analytics and social network analysis. His research has been published in several prestigious journals, including IEEE Transactions on Cybernetics, IEEE Transactions on Cloud Computing, IEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing, IEEE Systems Journal, IEEE Journal of Biomedical and Health Informatics,…