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Recycle These Pixels: Sustainability and the User Experience

Beautiful Information

Discovering patterns in knowledge spaces

A column by Jonathan Follett
April 22, 2008

Whether we’re designing the user experience for a digital product or a physical one, as UX professionals, we are uniquely positioned to influence the behavior of other people, for good or ill. Our employers or clients charge us with responsibility for not only defining a design problem from multiple perspectives, but also finding solutions that are better than the ones that came before.

Increased energy consumption, materials waste, and the resulting climate change are the chief difficulties our generation of designers and thinkers must address—or ignore at our own peril. But for most UX professionals, sustainability—unlike usability, technical feasibility, aesthetic appeal, and even business viability—is not yet a baseline factor that we take into account when designing a product or service.

In honor of Earth Day—which occurs this year on April 22, 2008—let’s explore some different ways we can think about, influence, and change the design of digital products in ways that will alter both our own behavior and that of others and foster respect for our planet and its resources.

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A Sustainable Design Strategy

Adam Richardson, Director of Product Strategy at Frog Design, discusses sustainability as design principle in his article “Tragedy of the Commons,” in the Frog Design Web magazine Mind. In addition to the traditional factors contributing to product conception and development—business, technological viability, and people’s goals and desires—Richardson proposes that we should also consider a fourth factor: the environment.

“To quell the ecological damage being caused by our current industrial production system, we must contextualize feature requests within this broader understanding. User desires are no longer justification enough for production. We must add an Environmental factor to the historical rubric of Business, Technology, and People. And just as we sideline products and services that fail to adequately meet standards of viability, feasibility, or desirability, so too must we reject initiatives that are not sustainable. Ignoring this “E-factor” should be considered poor business practice and poor design—no matter how much consumers might seem to demand it.”—Adam Richardson

In one sense, we’re already considering sustainability as a factor in our designs—because all products require materials, manufacturing, and energy. We just don’t give the environment much weight in our deliberations. The results often are unsustainable design solutions.

To truly deal with the problem of sustainability, we may need to elevate the environmental factor above other design considerations, because it plays such an important role across the board. Looking at design from this perspective, we can and should view design for sustainability as the design of a complete product lifecycle—from creation to disposal.

Is this an expansion of the mandate of user experience or will this require an entirely new design role? Richardson doesn’t specifically call for the creation of a separate discipline to implement and support sustainable design, but his message is clear: We need to design for sustainability. And, just as the people who use products need an advocate on their design teams, so do we need advocates for the larger ecosystem in which we develop and use products and, ultimately, to which they return.

Strategic Complexities

We’re at a strange crossroads for green design. From a business perspective, sustainability remains an expensive proposition. But from a marketing perspective, sustainability has achieved great momentum as the buzzword of the moment. In terms of desirability, the green trend has reached a critical mass. And for UX professionals who consider people’s goals paramount, this critical mass can drive eco-friendly design innovations. It’s a brave new world, in which there are no established heuristics, no rules of thumb for sustainability across the broad expanse of product creation. And the arguments and proofs justifying sustainability as an important factor in design are only beginning to take shape.

Let’s examine one example that shows the intimidating complexity of sustainable design: the struggles of materials scientists striving to create biodegradable plastics. A plastic that degrades in salt water would be highly advantageous to shipping and cruise lines, who produce and store outrageous amounts of waste while at sea. However, one of the arguments against the production of such biodegradable plastics in general—besides their great expense—is the tremendous amount of power such manufacturing processes require. In fact, the amount of energy we’d use in their production and the carbon dioxide emissions that would result are more damaging to the environment than the benefits of having a plastic that degrades over an extremely short period of time.

Sustainable UX

What can we really do as UX designers? When it comes to sustainability, aren’t professions like architecture and industrial design better positioned to create substantive change? While it may seem so at first glance, the answer is a resounding no: We have a significant role to play.

Just as print designers can choose the types of paper and inks to use and the method of printing, so, too, can UX designers select the materials that go into a digital experience. After all, the digital lives we lead are only half virtual. We require physical devices to provide and access digital experiences—including servers, desktop and notebook computers, mobile devices, and phones.

The Short, But Sweet Life of Computer Hardware

In his award-winning paper for CHI 2007, “Sustainable Interaction Design: Invention & Disposal, Renewal & Reuse,” Eli Blevis describes a framework for evaluating product design and its environmental impact.

“On further reflection, it is apparent that software is material that prompts physical qualities, in the sense that it drives the demand for new hardware, and as such, it causes premature disposal of perfectly adequate physical materials through obsolescence—too often, software may be almost wholly defined as that insidious material of digital artifice that causes the premature obsolescence of physical materials.”—Eli Blevis

Much as we all benefit from technological advances and increasingly inexpensive computing power, rapid obsolescence is not a sustainable solution. Forcing consumers to replace their computers and devices every few years is wasteful. As a Mac user, I’m excited by their operating system advances, but have felt disheartened by the fact that I’d need a new machine to run the latest version.

Looking at software from this perspective—as the driving force of our digital lives—UX professionals really do have direct input into the process of making our products sustainable. However, like the materials scientists making biodegradable plastics, we may find ourselves stymied by the complexities of the problem of sustainability. To avoid premature hardware obsolescence, should we design user experiences only for the computers and devices we have now? But, if not, how can we find ways of using and reusing new hardware rather than disposing of it, adding to the mountains of computer waste? Should we advocate for new computers and devices that are made with chips that use less power and constructed of recycled materials that last longer? Or, is it possible we can be satisfied with what we’ve got?

As designers, we may not have immediate answers to any of these questions, but this is a discussion that is worth having. For further exploration of the sustainability question, have a look at Richard Anderson’s blog post “On ‘Green Design’,” which includes some links to other interesting resources, and the summer 2007 issue of Mind, which Frog Design devoted entirely to this topic.

The Digital Life as Sustainable Solution

Despite the seemingly endless complexities and difficulties that sustainable design may pose, as UX professionals, we can take heart in the many positive contributions we’ve already made to the digital world. We design digital transactions and interactions that provide ways for people to conduct their lives with a smaller carbon footprint.

Virtual Business

Communication and collaboration tools—from VoIP communications and videoconferencing to wikis and screen-sharing applications—reduce travel. And virtual companies—in which employees work from home or wherever else they choose—require no offices or other public spaces at all. Their operation requires no buildings that, while empty at night, waste electricity for light, heating, cooling, and computer equipment, and employees need not commute to get to work.

Reducing Paper Use

Just one family’s converting from paper to electronic statements for banking and credit-card transactions can save a lot of trees. The PayItGreen Alliance released a study in March 2008 that showed “one household ditching paper statements for Web transactions would save 24 square feet of forest a year.”

Digital Goods

And, of course, when consumers purchase digital products online—downloading software, music, and movies instead of buying them on CD or DVD—we eliminate both packaging waste and the need to expend energy in shipping the products.

A Sustainable Mindset

As UX designers—and just people who are concerned with the fate of our planet—the most important actions we can take are to incorporate sustainability into our professional and personal thinking and make it the basis of the actions we take in our daily lives.

If our goal really is to achieve sustainability, in the long term, we must effect broad cultural changes as well. To this end, there are several professional-practice pledges you can endorse, including The Designers Accord and Design Can Change.

As I puzzle through the possibilities and complexities of sustainability and the designer’s role in achieving this goal, I often think of my grandparents and their World War II experience. People living in the United States recycled every scrap of metal for the war effort. The government rationed fuel. And nothing, absolutely nothing, was wasted. Their frugal material existence laid the groundwork for the prosperity of the years that followed the war. I can't help but think their perspective might be helpful now. Waste nothing. Find ways to reuse what we have. The principles remain the same no matter what words we use to describe them.

For now, a rule of thumb that we can all immediately apply is that less is indeed more when it comes to sustainability. Solutions that are eco-friendly inherently strive for less—less waste, less power consumption, and less product and packaging. Even a very simple action like powering down your computer or other devices for a day would be a good start. 

Principal at Involution Studios

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Jonathan FollettAt Invo, Jon leads the firm’s emerging technologies practice, working with clients such as Partners HealthCare, the Personal Genome Project, and Walgreens. His work has been featured in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and WIRED. Author of four books, Jon edited Designing for Emerging Technologies for O’Reilly Media, in 2014. The book offers a glimpse into what future interactions and user experiences may look like for rapidly developing technologies—from genomics to nano printers to workforce robotics. Jon’s articles on UX and information design have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese. In addition to writing about technology, Jon has co-authored a series of alt culture books on UFOs and millennial madness. Scholastic will publish Jon’s forthcoming science fiction novel, Marvin and the Moths, in 2016.  Read More

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