The digital industry knows it plays a major role in the emission of carbon into our atmosphere, and the platforms we use everyday are part of a global problem. The data centers that power them are responsible for more CO2 than the entire aviation industry, and if the internet were a country, it would be the sixth or seventh largest polluter globally.
So, how can we begin to make our industry more sustainable? The obvious place for UX Designers to begin is to build behavioral nudges into the experiences we create that encourage people to make decisions that have a better outcome for the environment. In the same way we nudge prospective customers to be more likely to engage, purchase or display loyalty, we can use similar tactics to influence behavior and encourage people to be actively sustainable in their choices.
If we can build in these green incentives to existing customer journeys and goals, they simply become the new normal and may result in the customer feeling more positive about the goal they achieved. We’re already seeing brands consider how their digital experiences can encourage such behavior. One great example of this is how the travel search engine Kayak gives customers the ability to sort their flight search results by how much CO2 is emitted for each flight. Allowing them to see how flights compare environmentally and choose the most sustainable option available to them. They also offer tips and advice on how to make travel as sustainable as possible throughout the entire journey.
The rise of the ‘unreasonable consumer’, where shoppers expect delivery within hours of a purchase has fuelled an unsustainable pattern in the supply chain. Filling our roads with drivers dashing to deliver everyday items we really didn’t need urgently in the first place. Slowly this is changing, and the greener ‘no rush’ options are being offered more frequently. The delivery model is just one example, but there are countless opportunities for designers to work closely with brands to weave positive behavior into their digital touchpoints.
Dare I say it, but should brands go as far as encouraging their customers to use their digital products less? Make the interactions they do have with them more meaningful and significant and there’s potentially less need to come back, with the net result of us all using our energy-hungry devices less often.
Sustainable thinking in product design
We’ve witnessed some innovative thinking (such as this article by Felix Heibeck) on how we can challenge the accepted notion of a successful product or service by adding sustainability or inclusivity into the criteria. Businesses have prioritized their services by measuring desirability, feasibility and viability, and adding sustainability to that list will require innovation, new business models and new measurement frameworks. You don’t have to look hard to see how brands openly talk about their sustainability ambitions, so connecting these aspirations to their experience design is the logical next step.
Some brands have been walking the walk long before it became popular to do so. Patagonia has put environmental challenges high on their agenda since they were founded, and today they use their brand platforms to actively support those wishing to be active in the climate crisis. They’ve built Patagonia Action Works to connect individuals with organizations working on environmental issues in grassroots communities. Through the platform, people can volunteer skills and time, sign petitions, discover local events and donate money to nearby causes.
It’s apparent there are opportunities within design to influence society positively, and one of these is to make digital experiences as inclusive as possible. The wider the group of people who can use a single experience, the greener it becomes through its ongoing usage. GOV.UK is an example of a platform that had all user types considered as primary in it’s conception, and it’s longevity is a testament to that forward and inclusive thinking. We rarely measure sustainability or inclusivity as a metric of success or business KPI and until we do, any ‘green’ features a designer suggests can be viewed as not essential.
As well as adapting the design thinking model, we can be exploring how to change the way we think about using digital to sell products and services. We tend to design experiences focused on brand awareness, acquisition and customer retention, but we rarely design for a product's end of life. As UX designers we’re comfortable with creating onboarding journeys so it’s not a huge leap to consider how we can use design to educate how best to reuse or dispose of a product in the future.
Practical example: Making websites more carbon neutral
If we begin to think about how the process of design can be made more sustainable, an obvious area of focus is modern web design practices. When a consumer lands on a site with the intent to make their purchase, a chain of events is triggered and the result is often environmentally damaging.
Ways of neutralizing this effect are becoming increasingly evident and discussed in the UX community. Dark mode is the most obvious attempt to lower energy consumption of screens and devices. YouTube already suggests dark mode by default, as it uses 43% less energy than the default, full brightness theme. Additionally, Google has discovered that different colors can impact energy consumption, with some colors such as red being more efficient than others.
Another area of impact we can have as designers is to consider how we can lessen the data consumption when serving web pages to the end-user. Much of the internet is full of unnecessarily heavy content, media and code, much of which the user either doesn’t need or doesn’t see. A greener approach is to include practices such as avoiding using too many heavy font weights, optimizing imagery or videos (opens in new tab) correctly, or lazy-loading pages so that data is only downloaded when needed. These can all be achieved during the design phase of a website, and there are other considerations in the development phase and beyond. Considering where the website is hosted and how green that provider's credentials are is a key contributor to a more sustainable internet.
Using automation to achieve efficient design
Many of these tactics have already been widely discussed or put into practice by designers and the digital industry. Yet, technology is emerging continuously and there are new ways we can lessen the amount of human and mechanical energy needed during the design process. Being green in our UX thinking is a positive behavior to build on, but by directly reducing the effort involved in the production of digital assets, we’ll quickly start making savings.
Machine-driven automation in particular is good at processing the mundane tasks that take people a long time to complete. We already use this technology in some sectors, employing bots to deal with the vast number of customer service queries. However these systems can breed frustration and leave people wanting to speak with a human. If we combine automation with a layer of quality (from humans), then we can build tools which deliver efficiency and quality, and help remove the heavy lifting phase of asset creation. Traditionally it's been the ‘long tail’ of the production process that involves making many variants of the same execution, whether it’s minor local market adaptations or simple content changes.
We can protect or even increase the time we have to be creative by reducing the effort further along the process. Energy is saved purely through less people taking less time to get products to market. Of course there is a trade-off between using machines to do this work, versus doing it manually and producing carbon as we go. Time is the key factor in this equation, and if the time taken is substantial enough, the option to use technology instead of humans is ultimately greener.
As well as getting products to market faster, we can use AI to build bespoke tools that help designers and developers correctly implement a design and remove costly rounds of brand governance or visual QA. This is made possible by teaching an AI the ins and outs of a brand ecosystem or design system, and with that understanding it can become a designer’s digital assistant, offering brand guidance at the point of which the design is created. Use cases of these tools include allowing designers to self-serve in processes such as brand onboarding or in the management of version control across a design or pattern library.
Just as the cause of climate change is multifaceted, the ways in which we can design greener digital products is not a singular silver bullet solution either.
As we learn to make positive adjustments in the way we consume energy, we need to consider sustainability for every touchpoint we design and along every stage of the process. Yet our strongest weapon in the fight against climate change is our position as creative innovators. In this role we can influence the brands and organizations we work with, showing them how they can change consumer behavior for the better. And we can continue to develop technology that delivers more sustainable working practices for us and for the digital industry as a whole.
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Steve Whittington, Creative Director of Experience Design, AnalogFolk (opens in new tab)