Differences between Lean, Agile, and Design Thinking



Hello all,

I’m struggling to understand what exactly the differences are between Lean, Agile, and Design Thinking methodologies =( I’ve read so many blog posts that simply don’t get to the point or explain it in a manner that I can understand.

Like how you would you explain to someone (briefly) what agile is? What lean is? Is agile about breaking things down into smaller chunks to make it fast? Is lean about iterating quickly and avoiding cost?

Truthfully, I’m looking for a readers digest version, like I’m a 9yr old ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Plz help <3


Calling in @amanda_stockwell


Here’s a short version:
Agile is a software development approach - there isn’t a specific process prescribed, but there is a focus on continually releasing small chunks of working code, fostering collaboration among cross functional teams and users, and being able to respond to change. It got spun up largely as a response to traditional Waterfall processes and the frustrations of having to stick to a plan regardless of what you learn.
Lean is a business approach that comes from the manufacturing world - the whole focus is on reducing waste, increasing efficiency , and setting up teams to maximize value. The lean approach can be applied to an entire business regardless of industry.
Design thinking is an design approach focused on “problem solving with multidisciplinary teams, producing competitive end-to-end solutions that delight customers, users, and employees.”

As you can tell, there is a lot of overlap and these approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. They come from different places and have different focuses but use a lot of the same strategies. Hope that helps!


Thank you so much for that Amanda!

Unfortunately, it’s still not 100% clear to me how these pertain to me in design? For example, I hear these terms freely at meetups, in interviews, etc., but what’s the ‘gist’? What’s a quick, simple, readers digest definition?

Is agile all about taking a project and breaking it down into smaller chunks? What about putting out a product quickly then iterating based on user feedback, is that technically “lean”?

I understand that I’m taking these words that are specific to software development and manufacturing and trying to understand it my own little UX designer mind so apologies if I am causing everyone major confusion.


Ok, I think I better understand your question. Let me know if this helps:

Agile and Lean matter to you as a designer because they speak to how a team or company you’re likely to be embedded in operates and what they value. There isn’t a specific process for you to learn and there aren’t necessarily clear definitions between the approaches, but knowing what they are can help you figure out the culture of a place and how to adapt your design processes to match that context.

For instance, you could work on a cross-functional team that values releasing working code (Agile) and reducing extra effort (Lean) and uses the Design Thinking framework to help brainstorm new ideas. In that case, you wouldn’t have a set phase to conduct discovery research (like in more traditional Waterfall settings) so you have to iteratively design and test quickly. That’s where the difference is for a UXer.


Got it! This helps understand much better.