187. What's wrong with Design Thinking?

business strategy design thinking innovation ux design Jan 24, 2024

The Design Thinking market is growing and Logitech's ex CEO Bracken Darrell credits it with increasing shareholder returns 10 times. 

But, Design Lead Caoimhe Kelly believes Design Thinking doesn't fully encompass what a designer does.

She says that to invent a new product or launch a venture, a 5 step design process from a business book isn't enough.

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Why the designer skill set is most like the CEO skill set
  • Why the Design Thinking process, as described in business books, isn't enough to understand what designers really do
  • How to balance competing demands: what to do when customers, investors, and sales teams all want different things

Join our January program & have your best year yet:

Design for Growth 

Resources mentioned in this episode:

McKinsey: Are you asking enough from your design leaders?

Listen here on Apple

Listen here on Spotify

Watch on YouTube


Join the Tech for Non-Techies membership and succeed in the Digital Age

Tech for Non-Techies clients 

  • Reach senior leadership positions in Big Tech firms
  • Lead digital transformation in established businesses
  • Create tech businesses as non-technical founders
  • Pivot into careers in venture capital

We love hearing from our readers and listeners. So if you have questions about the content or working with us, just get in touch on [email protected]


Say hi to Sophia on Twitter and follow her on LinkedIn.

Following us on YouTubeFacebookInstagram and TikTok will make you smarter. 


Interview Transcript

Caoimhe Kelly - Beyond Design Thinking Interview

Sophia Matveeva: Hello, Caoimhe Kelly, and welcome to the Tech for Non Techies podcast. I'm so happy to have you here. 

Caoimhe Kelly: Hello, Sophia. Thank you for having me. I'm excited for the conversation. 

Sophia Matveeva: Wonderful. So, My listeners would know that I have been going on and on about design thinking and the value of learning from designers here.

And we've recently had an industrial designer on. And today I wanted to talk to somebody from the retail side. So somebody who was actually besides some of the things that you might be wearing today. And so we're going to learn. about what designers really do. And I think this is really important because there is this emphasis on design thinking in the corporate world.

And from what I'm seeing is that actual designers tend to think it's a little bit incomplete. So for example, there's an article from McKinsey, which is this fancy consultancy that, you and I, we've both read and, you have some thoughts about it so I'm going to paste the article in the show notes so everybody can read it but essentially the article is called, Are you asking enough from your design leaders, it is by McKinsey, and it starts with saying companies that excel at design.

Grow revenues and shareholder returns it at nearly twice the rate of their industry peers. So that's good. So why aren't more companies joining their ranks asks McKinsey. And then they basically asked 300 senior people about what's happening and how essentially the role of design could be improved. But Caoimhe you read this article and you weren't entirely impressed.

So tell me more. Well, 

Caoimhe Kelly: I think it does. The article does bring a lot of good points to the table. It does raise design in general. So that's a good thing. Right. We want to, I'm always happy to have the light shone and designers and the great work that they do. But for me, I found it. , At times, a little bit patronizing, if that's how you say, but because there is a lot of talk about the frameworks and the techniques and the tools and the metrics.

And I understand, it's very important we need to understand productivity in order to understand if we're really making money or not. I get it. But a lot of the article focused on the very measurable aspects of design, but in truth the designer does so much more. Then the, expert areas of our role, like.

In my case, I'm a shoe designer. So using Adobe illustrator and sketching, reviewing patterns, fit testing. Those are very specific elements of my job, analyzing trend, creating mood boards, all of those things. They are specific and essential. However, that's a very small part of what I really did. And my teams really did.

When I was working in the British high street and for global footwear brands, there is a lot more. To be said about the empathetic skills that designers have the relationship building skills, the collaborative skills, the ability to assimilate a lot of information all at once and hold multiple possibilities in the air until it comes clear, which one is the correct one, or that the time is now and we have to just move with something.

So I think there's a lot more and I understand also there's a lot more across many, many functions, right? It's not just exclusive to design, but I think we tend to really hone in on what we can measure and fear what we can't quantify. Yeah, well, I think 

Sophia Matveeva: this is a trend that I'm seeing across all industries, but also.

This really reminds me of a conversation that I had with a dentist and this dentist was saying, you know, when people think of a dentist, they basically think of the person who sticks a drill in your mouth and that, you know, they essentially think of us as mouth mechanics. And the dentist said, well, but we're so much more than that.

We really understand your health. We understand, you know, because actually if you have something wrong with your teeth that can. You know, that can impact your overall health and how your overall health impacts your teeth. We're not just people who go and take out a tooth that's hurting. We're so much more, but this is what we're known for.

And I remember this dentist saying that, like, we're so much more than just the, this one procedure or these tools, which essentially is what you're saying too. Like you have this output. But, you know, to create a shoe or to create an iPhone, it's not just a thing. It's so much more. So could you tell us a little bit more about Essentially the skills that designers have, and maybe you could give us a story of how something was created, who had to be involved so we can really see what these skills are.

Caoimhe Kelly: So , from a footwear point of view, so most often, when I was designing footwear, I was working with a buying manager or a product manager, depending whether you're in the UK or the US, different names, same role, um, you would have somebody from the finance team or merchandiser, And you would have your design and they're the three kind of main pillars.

So these three people have to be in lockstep all the time.

Sophia Matveeva: So finance, commercial and the design, interesting because it is similar, I think in the tech world too. So you're going to have basically the person who's paying for it. Yes, like the money side, then you're going to have the design side which understands the users, and then you're going to have the okay how do we sell it, like how, how do we, so who's paying for it, who's going to sell it and who's going to make it.


Caoimhe Kelly: yeah. And then you have that layer, but then you have your technical team. So you have your product developers who are the experts in how it will go together. You will have some engineers, particularly if you're working in sports footwear, you're developing new components like outsoles, new lasts, you'll be dealing with engineers on that level.

Uh, you might have a material specialist. Particularly if you're in an innovative company or, a company that's, pivoting into sustainability. So you'll have experts on that level that you're constantly dealing with. You will have your factory, you will have the suppliers to the factory. Um, you will have a fit model, you will do fit tests.

You will have a marketing team further out, but still there. There has to be negotiation and agreement and collaboration with them too. And you'll have, you know, your design team around you. And you are in constant negotiation with everybody. And an interesting part as well about design. I think that we focus on, you know, being user centric and human based design and that's incredibly important.

But I think that there's also the importance of remembering to be kind of human centered in the process and amongst each other and with each other and understanding what everybody needs from the product. And the brand needs from the product and what the consumer needs for the product and what our own kind of aesthetic or biases and is that correct for the brand or the consumer or the trend or the time.

And so there's constantly multiple factors that if you were to try and document, you would, you wouldn't design anything because you'd just be documenting 

Sophia Matveeva: everything. So this actually sounds quite like the CEO skill set. Because as a CEO, you're thinking, okay, you've got shareholder pressure, whether it's a private company, basically, you've got shareholders, somebody is going to be annoyed with you.

That's just the rule. There is an email that you need to answer because somebody wants some sort of ridiculous amount of data that you've got to take time to pass. You've got shareholder management always. Then you've got the employee management, like they need things, you know, you need to go and be, you know, mama bear in my case over there.

Yeah. Then you've got your customers. So your existing customers and essentially without the customers, you're all screwed. And they want different things. Then you need new customers, which is basically marketing. And then you also need to try to kind of think for yourself, because everybody has different competing agendas.

And, you know, if you're looking at shareholders, for example, you are going to have venture capitalists. Who essentially want a pretty fast turnaround. And then you might have strategic partners and investors from the industry that generally have a much longer point of view. So if you have, as a CEO, you've got all of these competing agendas and you yourself have to make decisions in the knowledge that whatever decision you make, somebody is going to not like it.

Yes. And It's, it's the job. This is why, I mean, personally, I think this is why so many people find it stressful because there was no decision that will make everybody happy. And it sounds like this is essentially what the designer is doing. Is that a correct 

Caoimhe Kelly: assumption? In my experience, yes. That's, that's how we have operated and, you know.

With the whole team, we're all working together, all collaborating, not no one individual is responsible at the end of the day for the success or not. But in my experience, it tends to be the designer that has the more holistic view of everyone and everything, whereas other functions can kind of focus in on their stream, they will have an overview, an idea, they will be kept informed.

But unless it's specific to the material, or the last, or the outsell, or whatever it is. They won't get in more involved than that, whereas the designer is touch point for everyone. 

Sophia Matveeva: So that's interesting. So we can go back to this McKinsey article because it does say that companies that excel at design grow revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry peers.

So clearly, having designers really close to, you know, the top decision makers. is a useful thing. Like it literally makes you more money. And I wonder if it is because essentially you have, yes, you have the, you have the CEO, but also you have another person who basically understands some of those pressures.

When like the CTO cares about the technology, the CMO is going to care about, okay. What marketing campaigns are we doing? And so it's kind of almost like having a peer, basically somebody who understands you. I don't know. Does that, does that sound remotely correct to you? 

Caoimhe Kelly: I mean, it's certainly registers for me in that, recently I've been doing some work with founders.

 You know, Getting 12 CEOs but CEOs of very small and very early stage businesses. And I have found that I'm actually really able to support them and help them because I can help them see the many, many things they need to see. And figure out how to lay them out and how to tackle them and how to prioritize them and reduce the overwhelm for them.

So I'm not solving problems for them, by any means, but I am able to kind of dip into a bit of a conversation here see where the importance is, and help them see, okay now maybe we need to move here and help I guess direct and make that kind of, I suppose, Less linear thinking or less approach, more accessible and more, comfortable.

Sophia Matveeva: Yes. And this is a really interesting point about this linear approach, because I certainly know that in traditional industries, like, I don't know, I worked in private equity before, you know, I have this MBA, which is from a school, which is, you know, like they love a spreadsheet and they love a framework.

Yeah. And. Honestly, in a very confusing, chaotic world, having a bunch of frameworks is useful because otherwise what, like, you don't know what you're doing, but then there is this danger of basically living your life by framework. And you can't do that, especially when you get to the really high echelons because, you know, how could we have lived by frameworks.

Through original lockdown. Do you remember like March 2020? Nobody knew what was going on. Okay, now we can look at it, we can learn, we can have frameworks. But at the time, it was like right, I don't know, everybody had a meltdown and started making banana bread. And so, it is interesting that essentially what you're saying is that designers operate in a more chaotic world or acknowledge that the world is chaotic and out of this chaos and competing demand, you have to make a result.

Whereas other departments tend to be, okay, we've got these rules, we've got these checklists. Is that, am I on the right track here? Yeah, 

Caoimhe Kelly: I think so. But I think what's also really interesting and it is important to acknowledge is that creativity and creative thinking. You know, it does exist in outside of the designers role, and I have worked with incredibly creative, developers, engineers, finance, you know, it exists in lots of areas, but I don't think it is elevated enough, or encouraged enough.

Across the board. So I think, yes, you know, obviously I will always be the one shining the light on the designers and encouraging the elevation of designers through the ranks and bringing people with that background through, but also, you know, encouraging. And I think that's why it's important to have that in the C suite.

In order to encourage those people who would rely on more linear processes and frameworks to just not always but be able to kind of move in and out of that a little bit more. Um, and if we could begin to have those cultures, and those experiences kind of embedded from the top down, that I think would be a really great thing to see the industry across the board.

Sophia Matveeva: Also, I remember when we talked, recently, you discussed how you would get inspired by the top designers and what that process looked like with basically pushing ideas through. Could you tell the audience a bit about this? 

Caoimhe Kelly: Yeah. So as a designer say, gosh, you know, many moons ago, back on the high street or more recently working with a big, big global brand, but doing kind of fashion, but mainstream, very much mainstream, right?

So we would look to the catwalks as designers. We loved it. It was great. Get, you know, I remember back in the days before we had all our virtual pin boards. Printing out pictures, cutting out the pictures, sticking them on giant boards, grouping the trends, getting really inspired and loving it. Well that sounds so much 

Sophia Matveeva: fun to me, that like Devil Wears Prada but the good bit.

Caoimhe Kelly: The good bit, the best bit, and we loved it and we would have so much fun and we would be able to, you know, we were tracking from previous seasons anticipating where they would go, and also recognizing, okay, you know. We're, I don't know, say next or Marks Spencers. We're not going to do exactly what, Alaia is doing, Azzedine Alaia, whoever it is, but maybe we can take an element.

Maybe there's something we can take from this and we can apply it in a different way, whether it's a stitch detail, or a trim, or a heel shape, but we'll make it lower, we'll make it more commercial, we'll make the toe round, we'll make it so that it's really accessible to our consumer, and also at our price point.

So we would build that story, but we would also then always include something more far reaching. And as I moved actually to the global brand, it's interesting. They found this much more difficult to accept from me, but then they kind of brought me in as a wild card anyway, so that was okay. Um, and I would show them things that were very far reaching or very kind of directional.

Sophia Matveeva: And by far reaching, what do you mean? Because I know that a lot of our audience, they. They're not necessarily fashion followers. So, 

Caoimhe Kelly: yeah, well, it might have been just like something. Like, 

Sophia Matveeva: far reaching like basically something that nobody, nobody in the real world would ever wear, unless you're 

Caoimhe Kelly: Lady Gaga.

Exactly. Unless you were a real, you know, fashionista, or maybe it's just something that, yes, people who have lots of money and have, you know, lots of time, we're going to work, or they're not going to care about how high the heel is, or they're not going to care that the toe is curling upwards and looks really strange.

Or, you know, even with sneakers, when sneakers and the outsoles became really, really rooted and round and big. People were like, no one's ever going to wear those. And now, you know, these things happen. They, they grow. Yeah. So we start showing them and the finance team would be like, Oh, for goodness sake, Oh, please just move on, move on.

Or, you know, the, tech team, well, we're never going to be able to make that, and we're never going to be able to afford that. So really and truly like, okay, we get it, but move on, move on. That's not us. It's not our brand. It's not who we are. And was 

Sophia Matveeva: it also a bit like, okay, you crazy creative people are like, we'll just sit here and let you talk.

And then we are the grownups that will do the work. Look 

Caoimhe Kelly: at you having, you know, and you know, there's the other stereotype of the designers has just been a drawing pretty pictures and all that thing right so we're playing into that stereotype. And then, on the one hand, you can think, fine, whatever. But you kind of enjoy it and it's kind of fun to play along, but it also really serves a purpose, because by introducing these things, each season, showing how it's grown showing how it's changed, even if we haven't tried to make a prototype yet.

Everyone's kind of in the back of their mind thinking about how it might work and what could we make. But you've embedded the 

Sophia Matveeva: idea. It's like the movie Inception. Yeah. You've embedded the idea in the brain. Yeah. You slowly, 

Caoimhe Kelly: yeah. . Yeah. And then it gets to the point where it's like, okay, you know what? Now we are here, it's six seasons later, or three or four seasons later, we're here and it's the right time for our brand to do it in our way.

Mm-Hmm. , can we move on this now? And at that point. It will be quite funny. Either they'll say, yes, okay, we're ready. Let's do it. And we'll jump in and, you know, we'll be, we'll be kind of, we'll be a step ahead because we'll have already been thinking about how we might do it. Or, this is always the best bit, somebody from senior leadership will come in and go, Hey guys, I saw this.

Oh my god, have you seen this, this is amazing. This is what we need for our brand. 

Sophia Matveeva: Okay. So I actually think that this is a really good professional skill set for everybody to learn, because I'm sure that you know. If you're an ambitious person, you are going to go and have your own ideas because, you know, you listen to this podcast, you read books, you know, you're there, you're collecting all of this information.

But basically, unless you're Elon Musk, you can't just be like, and now we're going to go and do this thing and I don't care what anybody says, you know, you're going to need either the CFO approval or your colleagues or invest like you will need to bring other people on board. And when there are innovative and really creative ideas.

Most of the time, you're not going to be met with, Oh, yes, look, this is completely wild and we've never seen it before, but here's a million, like that doesn't happen. If only. Yes, sadly, that doesn't happen. So all of us need to learn the skill of, okay, how do we push this idea through in a way that, you know, the idea gets made, but also then doesn't alienate everybody.

Because. A lot of the time I think we can push things through, but then it's at such a political cost that everybody hates you and basically, like, unless this thing is a surefire winner, you're not going to get another bag. Yep. And so what you're saying here is basically, show this idea, be ready to be told.

Yeah, this is never gonna happen, but then come back and do it again, and again, 

Caoimhe Kelly: and again. Yeah, and I think it's, it's so interesting because, you know, designers. Often have that stereotype of being a diva, arrogant, egotistical, sensitive, dramatic, all of those things. But actually we deal with rejection so much and deal with not that idea is not going to shut down.

People always have an opinion. Mm hmm. So come in and it's interesting you know in a way that they're not going to walk in and go well that financial plan looks terrible, but they'll see you on the shelf and go, God, I don't know if this one real guy wouldn't wear that and not hold back. Right, because it's interesting.

Yeah. And you deal with it and you just go, okay, well, that's okay. Didn't design it for you. Don't worry. Designed it for our customer. 

Sophia Matveeva: And that's another kind of professional skill set that we can all get is, you know, getting feedback in a way that then your entire day isn't ruined on feeling sorry for yourself.

Because I certainly had that when I present something and then I'm told, even if I know that it's not the target customer, and then, you know, I'm told that this doesn't work. I then spend a whole day feeling really bad about it. Yeah. How much more productive would we all be when we think, okay, yeah, great.

But this, this is not made for you. So it's fine. Yeah. And so what other, I guess, skill sets or mindsets do you think corporate leaders really need to learn from designers? 

Caoimhe Kelly: I think, comfort, and it's not to say that it doesn't sometimes sting and you don't go in, you know, curse everybody out of it quietly to yourself and then come back with a smile on your face.

But I think that kind of resilience which is such an overused word, perhaps at the moment, but I think it is that ability to kind of withstand ambiguity and change and variables, and to kind of see everything that you need to see, and then Filter out what doesn't apply to what you're working on. And that's the bit that's kind of impossible to quantify or put a metric on.

And I think that's the bit where, and I feel like that's partly possibly the most important skill, certainly as you move up the ranks, right? When, when you're in your early days, you are the expert in what you're doing. And for some. That's a great place to stay. And if you're working in a brand, that respects that and values that, then that can be a great career and that can go really, really well.

But if you, do aspire to. Moving on up and going on through, then I think it's that ability to speak each other's languages. And I think that's what always drew me to you and tech for non techies and, and, you know, for non technical founders or industry learning how to speak to tech, right? That makes so much sense to me because I think designers tend to need to speak everybody's language.

Um, and I think that's really important. And I think it's the empathy, the human centered, being human centered, not just in our approach to designing the thing, and not just in our approach to understanding the customer, the consumer, but actually in the way that we work together, I think that's for me, this, that those are the strongest designers in my opinion.

And those are the strongest skills in general, in any, any function, in any C suite. 

Sophia Matveeva: So I love this conversation because it is. In addition to what the corporate world is learning about design thinking and so actually you and I are teaching a workshop together on the 28th of January 2023. And so I'm going to teach the design thinking methodologies that are, you know, from the corporate world, but also really from the tech world because user experience design is so, you know, like you literally cannot make a web product without working with UX designers.

And, Then after those frameworks, then what you're going to share with people is okay, beyond design thinking, because, yes, frameworks are a good place to start. But then you need to go beyond this quantified definition of everything. And as our parting words, like now that you know where the beginning of 2024 and people are thinking about their skill sets and what they want to learn and essentially how they can.

grow in their careers this year. As a designer, what one thing would you say to people? What one thing should they learn or what one book should they read to basically get them to be this, to be more creative, to be more innovative? Gosh, 

Caoimhe Kelly: I truly believe, I think actually it's for me, it really is, it's, it's the collaborative.

Collaborative always stumble over that word, but it's that part right it is it is being open to learning about who are the people that you're going to work with. So I run a workshop in a university in Ireland with industrial design students. These students generally tend to go on to work in kind of medical industries in service design in, you know, big, big projects and big companies.

And. I come and I, because I did a similar degree and I come, I talked to them about footwear and they're often surprising. God, I never thought about footwear. And then I tell them about, you know, so what, who do you think I work with when I design and they say, well, your design team and then your factory.

And so then I start telling them about all the other people and all the other stakeholders and the value of having them and the importance of those relationships. So I think if you're starting out in your career and if there's a particular role you're applying for. Learn everything you can about that role, but also learn about the people you will work with and learn about what their functions are and what their likely kind of goals are going to be and how you can work together.

And build trust from the start because I think the old school way is to not trust and to kind of go behind and you know hide, hide of what we're doing and share when we know it's right but actually. I think it's much more important to be open and transparent and to build that trust from the beginning.

Sophia Matveeva: And this is so in line with tech but I'm thinking which is why you know you've been a listener to this podcast and reading emails for like three years now. Because it's all about the non technical side, knowing how to collaborate with people who are building technology. And that doesn't mean going over and looking at some code, because, you know, realistically, you're not going to do that.

And even if you do learn some code and you go and talk to a developer and you say oh there's an error that there's something wrong, that's not going to make you popular so I do not suggest that as a life strategy, but understanding. Okay. If something needs to get made, whether it's an app, whether it's an algorithm, or whether it's a pair of shoes, or it's an iPhone, who needs to be involved?

How do they measure success? What stresses them out? Because once you understand, okay, these, these people measure success of this way, this is basically how they get their bonus. This is what stresses them out. Then you can know, okay, how do you incentivize them? And how do you work with them? And I think the future of work is collaboration.

But when people say collaboration, I'm always like, well, what does that actually mean? And I think in practice, collaboration is learn what their roles are, learn what their goals are, and then think, okay, if I help these people achieve this goal, They're probably going to be more helpful to me too. 

Caoimhe Kelly: Exactly.

And that's it. Because, you know, when, when, when the, when things go crazy and you're under pressure, if you've built that trust amongst your stakeholders, whether they're internal or whether it's your factory or supplier, once you've supported them and you've shown your willingness to understand and trust them in their process, when you need their support, they're much more likely to be able to.

dig in for you and help you out too. So it's, yeah, sensible. 

Sophia Matveeva: Awesome. Well, this is very good advice. Well, thank you very much, Caoimhe. And I'm really excited about teaching the Design for Growth workshop with you on the 28th of January. 

Caoimhe Kelly: Me too. Thank you very much for having me.


Sign up to our mailing list!

Be the first to hear about offers, classes and events