Recently at Thoughtform, we’ve been talking about an approach to design thinking I call “bilateral design.” Here’s what I mean.
If you’re old enough, you’ll remember how business discovered design at around the turn of the millennium. Corporations began to recognize design thinking as a tool to address customer desires in a way traditional research couldn’t. Designers went face-to-face with customers and transformed the insights they discovered into user-driven products like Swiffers or services like Airbnb. Many of these offerings succeeded beyond all expectations.
Fast forward to today when nearly every corporation invokes design thinking as part of their process. Many have even built internal design teams and innovation labs. However, not all find transformative results. Why?
Many of design thinking’s success stories involve basic products for general consumers, where acceptance hinges on a few simple attributes and once achieved, scales up hugely. However, the more complex the scenario, the lower the chances of success. For example, developing B2B products and services often depends on addressing a network of many stakeholders and multilayered value chains. In heavily-regulated businesses like insurance, finance, and healthcare, it can mean walking a tightrope of requirements. In many cases, innovation is sharply limited by legacy systems and practices, and classic user-driven design thinking can easily get mired.
Yet I believe design can address these challenges, too—it just requires a modified approach.
Internal vs. external audiences
The process of guiding a new offering through the enterprise’s internal systems isn’t that different from guiding it to market. In each case we must understand and satisfy the needs of various audiences. Success relies on our ability to reconcile various conflicting factors to optimize value.
If we think of the enterprise’s stakeholders as customers and its processes as services, we can imagine a design process to understand and fulfill the enterprise’s needs. For example, just as we engage customers to understand their needs, so can we learn the needs of the stakeholders upon whom change depends. Just as we prototype new products or services, we can prototype the roles and activities needed to bring them about. Just as we map new customer journeys, we can map processes by which teams will produce and market new offerings. In doing so, design’s toolkit enables us to reconcile internal perspectives, creatively address constraints, and explore alternate models. By applying design thinking in this way, we can speed and improve the way complex enterprises adapt and reconfigure to deliver new value.
Why we call it “bilateral design”
The term “bilateral design” recognizes the two connected and interrelated sides inherent to launching a major offering. On the outward-facing side, design can help discover and develop a solution that fits the market. On the inward-facing side it can solve for how the enterprise might best produce and deliver that solution. Each process informs and gains strength from the other. The more closely they are integrated, the better and faster an organization can advance offerings that are innovative, valuable, and successful.
Thoughtform is a strategy and experience design studio. We help organizations drive internal change, create brand-defining experiences, and set a clear path to the future. Over more than 40 years, we have helped countless organizations design both their internal processes and external products to achieve solutions that are well-grounded and implementable.