Note: The following article was inspired by several sources, including the excellent book, ‘Designing for Sustainability, by Tim Frick, the SustainableUX conference, and ClimateAction.tech. I urge you to check them out.
Overwhelming evidence points to the fact that we have about a decade to combat climate change caused by human activity before irreversible damage is caused. It is the biggest crisis of our generation.
I think it is a safe bet to say that not many people consider the environmental impact of the Internet, and if they do, it is likely that they view digitising content and services as a more sustainable alternative to traditional products and services. However, a Harvard study suggests that content-heavy news sites can release more greenhouse gases than print if their pages are left open for extended periods of time. According to the report ‘Clicking Clean’ released in 2014 by Greenpeace, “If the internet were a country, it would be the 6th largest user of electricity behind China, the US, Japan, India and Russia.”
Every tweet sent, every image posted, and every Facebook status update uses energy. This data is stored in data banks, the majority of which are run by non-renewable energy sources. When you consider the enormous influence of the internet, and the billions of everyday users, the price suddenly becomes tangible. The Internet has a very real environmental impact.
What Can UX Designers Do?
Firstly, on a broader scale, influence is held by people who work in tech, economically, socially and politically. People follow and listen to what happens in the world of tech. We need to take advantage of this to highlight important issues and create awareness around the environmental impact of tech. Transformation has to be driven by everybody, not just by climate groups, and we have a responsibility to use our influence to drive this.
A significant portion of the Internet’s energy use happens at the front-end. This is where UX designers specifically come in. As the energy consumption of digital products is determined largely at the design phase, we need to keep design teams informed and aware. Efficiency and usability need to be considered as key strategies alongside sustainability when building sustainable products and services. We need to ensure that we create a framework for meaningful dialogue about the environmental impact of design decisions and build this into the design process.
“Design and user experience are where the seeds of web sustainability are sown. Products and services that provide a streamlined yet enjoyable experience- putting the right things in front of users at precisely the moment needed and nothing more- are more efficient and more sustainable. UX designers are in a unique position to create tools with sustainability at their heart by streamlining user workflows, minimizing information overload, and removing potential distractions that keep users from accomplishing tasks they set out to do.”
‘Designing For Sustainability, Tim Frick, 2014'
There are a myriad of ways in which UX designers can play their part. Most of the Internet is unsustainable, so there is an opportunity to make a very real and lasting impact through our work. The following are some ideas for ways in which UX designers can play their part in managing this global crisis.
· UX designers need to consider the entire life cycle of their products and services. Do not leave the big picture complexities to the product manager but communicate and collaborate with the entire team and be part of this view. Ask questions like whether the product parts are sourced considering fair labour. Think about the power sources. Ask if the product is built to last and consider disposal at the end of its life cycle.
· Ask if the product is solving a real-world problem? Can the user accomplish their goal in the least number of steps possible? Is the navigation easy to understand? Are design patterns based on commonly accepted standards?
· Use content strategy to offer choices to customers choices like sustainable shipping or highlighting ethical products on sites.
· When considering fonts, stick to two font types and reduce the typeface. This allows for faster page loading and uses less energy.
· Mobile has overtaken desktop and laptop as the most popular way for people to access the internet, so websites should be built with mobile first in mind. This forces designers to consider content and interactions to meet essential goals before adding any additional features.
· Follow the principle of progressive enhancement, which says that if something offers a great experience on a smaller device using fewer resources, the experience can be enhanced for users on more powerful devices rather than the other way around. This uses less data and therefore energy and makes the product more accessible.
· Think of the print style of your web pages-although arguably not as common as it once was, users do still print web pages and ensuring that your page will fit its content to the fewest pages possible is an easy way to save unnecessary extra pages being printed.
· When pitching to clients, build these more sustainable approaches into your pitch as part of the service you provide.
Sustainable design is about more than just making products that are energy efficient. It is about making inclusive products that are accessible to all users, that are equitable and that include all groups of people. Be inclusive and use universal design practices to ensure products are both sustainable and accessible to all. Use World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to check how accessible your designs are, and which says that products should be operable, understandable, perceivable & robust.
Ensuring that these ideas are built into our designs will not only lead to improved performance and usability with faster loading webpages, and clear navigation, cornerstones of our role as UX Designers, but will also lead to improved accessibility and decreased environmental impact. We, as UX designers, have a chance to make a lasting impact through our work. We need to make sure that we use this impact to build a sustainable future, accessible to all.