Triple Top Line

The Generic Product Design Version.

Jon Alling
Jun 26, 2015 · 3 min read

Maybe you're familiar with the sustainable business concept of the Triple Bottom Line, often referred to as People, Planet, and Profit. The triple bottom lines enable an organization to evaluate their performance on a broader basis, beyond just financial metrics. The idea is that those broader impacts could negatively (or positively) affect the true performance of the company, so they should be given equal weight when it comes to making critical business decisions.

You may not be as familiar with the work of William McDonough, who flips the equation on its head and suggests that we should consider a Triple Top Line instead. Focusing on the design of solutions that result in changes to the triple bottom line, instead of getting caught up in just trying to limit the damage. I like this approach even more.

Curiously I was reminded of this concept as I was doing some thinking about my approach to product development. I had been trying to characterize a balance I have been trying to strike between Design, Engineering, and Business. I settled on this simple diagram and description:

DESIGN, ENGINEERING, AND BUSINESS should not be mutually exclusive or siloed efforts. One does not automatically come before the other, or take priority. My focus is on practicing ways to bring these usually separate enterprise functions together to work in unison. Better products and businesses are the result.

I define these three functions like this:

DESIGN = matching a solution to a discovered customer need ENGINEERING = solving technical challenges in materializing the solution BUSINESS = able to sustainably (not just the green kind) offer the solution

Although these functions or disciplines rarely operate completely in unison in today’s enterprises, I believe the concept (although more generic than McDonough’s) has just as much relevance as the sustainable Triple Top or Bottom Line. I’m doing what I can to make it even more relevant.

An aside…

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers | 2015 Design in Tech Event

On a related note, I recently came across a short video of Bob Baxley, Head of Product Design at Pinterest, describing a hierarchy of how businesses often compete. He points out in early stages of industries they compete on technology, and then they move to competing on business models, before finally some of the elite compete on design. He considers this to be similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (basic needs ascending to creative thought).

I was intrigued by his association, especially since I wrote a bit about my interpretation of the UX hierarchy of needs last year. And historically, he might be right, but as I wrote in that previous post, and as I described above, I really think we need to be considering aspects of each of the needs/functions/disciplines along the way.

You might say that reliability can’t come before function, and pleasurability can’t come before either. But you can at least consider the direction you're headed toward pleasurability at that early functional stage, right? And hey, you might even be able to test a fraction of it while simultaneously testing your functional prototype.

Considering Baxley’s historical example though, can you really say design can’t come before technology or business model innovation? I don’t think so. I think each is perfectly relevant at any time, and in most cases you should be considering all three (or five if you add in McDonough’s Ecology and Equity pillars).

Jon Alling

Written by

Engineer… Product Designer… Founder Human | Crafted.

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