Recycle These Pixels: Sustainability and the User Experience

By Jonathan Follett

Published: April 22, 2008, Earth Day

“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.”

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.

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

“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.”

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

“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.”

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

“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.”

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

“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.”

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.

5 Comments

There are some other interesting examples of designing for sustainability in a book called The Human Factor, by Kim Vicente.

A fun read for those of us who feel that UX is more of an outlook on life, rather than a job :-)

Interesting article, but I hate to see statements like: “one household ditching paper statements for Web transactions would save 24 square feet of forest a year.” All paper these days comes from managed forests, so this is meaningless: growing wood, and then storing it for a long time, is a net carbon sink—a good thing.

I know that there is a lot more to the equation, but saving forest is simply not going to happen. The vast majority of forest clearance is to make way for agricultural use: beef farming in Brazil, palm-oil plantations in Indonesia, and so on—nothing to do with paper or timber.

Excellent, thought-provoking article. We already know that cutting bandwidth to the bone, designing uncluttered sites, and using words sparingly are fundamental to good user experience. Extending the principle of lean simplicity to include our Earth as a “user” seems the next logical step in our mandate as experience designers. After all, we are all about context and ergonomic interaction. Those of us who live in economically advantaged countries are aware that we are all connected electronically—it’s time to sync that up with the more crucial understanding that we are all linked environmentally.

It’s chic now to be environmentally aware. Yes, folks are recycling more and using energy-saving bulbs. But we are subject to intense, focused marketing campaigns that urge us to drive our SUVs to the mall to buy the latest electronic toys—while wearing our organic cotton “save the planet” T-shirts, of course. And let’s get real about this. While folks are downloading tunes instead of buying CDs, they also yearn for the newest generation iPod and are thrilled when the one they bought 2 years ago bites the dust, so that they can get a new one.

We can counter the strategy of planned obsolescence by designing for forward-compatibility, but the real challenge will be to get technology corporations to get on board while helping users accept—even be happy about—hanging on to their laptops for more than two years.

Olly Wright presented an interesting rationale for designing UX for sustainability at Euro IA 2007. The argument followed the following formula:

People like to spend money on products because they have an influence on their status in the real world. 4x4s are desirable, because they say something about the driver.

If we could diminish the focus on real-world status, fewer products would be consumed and produced, which in turn would reduce our carbon footprint.

And to take up the status slack, there would be online status. Olly argued that those who work on their online status by posting to blogs, commenting, digging, reviewing, and rating would have less need to display their status in the real world.

Here’s a PDF of the presentation, Ethical design & information architecture.

(Apologies for paraphrasing, Olly. Correct this if I’m wrong.)

In most industries, it is required that we keep our records organized and business running like clockwork with practicality and sustainability in mind. In any we can, in whatever field we may specialize, we need to make more effort in creating more environmentally friendly methods in our occupation.

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