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Impact-Driven Design – Why and how UX professionals should save this planet

Thomas Immich

UX Designer beim arbeiten

The title of this article is admittedly quite epic. However, I find it difficult to quickly explain what Impact-Driven Design has to do with saving our planet, as there are now too many terms and methods mixed up in the UX community. Therefore, I’d like to start with a bit of term sharpening – bear with me.

About customers, users and people

I am often asked in my trainings what exactly is the difference between User Experience (UX) and Customer Experience (CX). You often hear that CX is a superset of UX. But that would mean: Every user is always also a customer – and that is simply…. wrong.

The truth, unfortunately, is a bit more complicated:

  1. Not every customer is necessarily a user: In mechanical engineering, purchasing decisions are very often made by strategic purchasing, which decides on the basis of hard factors such as price or performance whether or not to purchase a machine, for example. As a contractual partner and purchase decision-maker, this strategic purchaser thus assumes the role of the customer, but will certainly not be the subsequent operator of the purchased machine. The UX of the machine only becomes a decision criterion for him if his company has also declared the topic of UX to be a strategic factor beforehand.
  2. Not every user is necessarily a customer: When children browse Netflix or watch a movie, they are obviously Netflix users. A good design then decides, on the one hand, whether the children are able to access their favorite movies independently and, on the other hand, whether non-child-friendly content remains inaccessible at the same time. However, the children are by no means the customers of Netflix, because the subscription and the control of the access is carried out solely by the legally competent parents (who in this case are certainly also users, but not primarily from the perspective of the described usage scenario).

So why is it important to differentiate between the two disciplines of UX and CX at all in the context of saving our planet?

Well: For me personally, focusing on the users is a lot more meaningful and sustainable than getting too caught up in a purely monetary goal through the image of “people = paying customers”. However, UX of course cannot and should not be free of monetary benefits per se, but simply be somewhat reflective when it comes to the discrepancy between user goals and business goals. To sharpen this point, I need to divide user experience again into passive user experience and active user experience.

Passive vs. active User Experience

To explain: Unfortunately, the majority of digital user experiences presented to us are simply about naked consumption. In the case of a consumption-oriented product, the fields of UX and CX are often very close to each other, since the primary goal is to close a sale, but they are not necessarily congruent – as can be seen in the Netflix example. And my point is not to say that consumption is bad per se. Who would I be if I demonized consumption, even though I myself take my place in this consumer society?

In my opinion, much worse than the consumer orientation of a product is the tendency often associated with it to shape product access in the form of passive user experiences. Passive user experiences are commonly based on constantly presenting users with new content without asking them to use even a modicum of their human capacity to build a deeper understanding of that content. Examples include the “buy now” button on Amazon, infinite scrolling on Instagram, or quantified liking on TikTok.

Active user experience, in contrast, is about creating product experiences that have a direct positive impact on personal development progress of the user:s. These active, productive or creative user experiences demand all of the user’s human skills and cognitive abilities, but are more stimulating than burdensome. Examples include: an extremely stripped-down text editor for concentrated blog article writing, a mobile app for mixing a song on a train ride, or an HMI for controlling a production machine … and to be fair, of course, TikTok when it comes to creating and editing your own videos.

So, to get the point across, UX is more meaningful than CX only insofar as we start from the active form of user experience, because only active user experience enables people to realize their own potentials or enable other people to discover and develop their own potentials.

Designing active UX has therefore long been the most desirable form of design at Centigrade, because: isn’t it fascinating what people are capable of when supported by good tools?!

Motivation for “the right things”

The active user experience is therefore superior to the passive user experience, especially with regard to the creation of primal human potential. But what does the planet gain from people making personal development progress? Isn’t it precisely the pursuit of human potential that is responsible for our growth mania and the associated hunger for resources?

There is certainly something to this, but I would not say per se that the primordial human striving for personal development also results in the exploitation of the planet in any case. In my view, sustainable action can succeed despite, and in some cases even because of, the primal human striving for further development.

Active user experiences, however, must be explicitly geared towards sustainability for this to happen. This is not an easy task for UX professionals, as they have a tendency to put people unreservedly at the center of their own design. Human-centeredness” is currently the guiding principle by which supposedly good design is measured – and is increasingly becoming a problem in today’s world.

Sustainability despite human-centeredness?

I’ll try to flesh out my point with an example: to a large extent, sufficient movement has a strong positive influence on active human development. Sufficient exercise allows us to access our own human potential more effectively. People who move more are also more able to concentrate and perform better.

Therefore, as a human-centered thinking designer:inside of active user experiences, one may and should ask the question: How do you motivate people to move more or more often? If UX design leads to people sitting less, then that sounds unreservedly positive at first.

Human-centeredness thought negatively

But now a simple example, where the positive connotation of the term “human-centeredness” sounds inappropriate and the supposedly desirable “active user experience” no longer sounds so desirable in terms of sustainability: If you design a digital platform on which people can meet together for motivational face-to-face yoga retreats and then even continue practicing together virtually, then this idea undoubtedly comes from human-centered thinking and also naturally provides more active than passive user experiences.

But if these people now get on a plane to get to the joint yoga retreat location as cheaply and quickly as possible via a cheap flight, only to lose interest after four virtual exercises on a PVC yoga mat and finally throw the yoga mat back in the trash? well, then human-centric design of active user experiences appears in a very different light.

So the question is: do we put the user:inside, and thus the human being, so much at the center that we as UX professionals play our part if our planet continues on its downward trajectory? Or are we doing everything we can to consider, even at the core of our designs, “What impact will our design have on the user:inside and beyond?” So, with a sustainable and meaningful mindset, shouldn’t we actually be aiming for more of a “planet-centered design,” since our planet is ultimately our most important stakeholder?

Customer, User and Planet Journeys

Let’s think about this question in terms of the popular concept of the “journey” in experience design. A “journey” describes the journey of a stakeholder (i.e., customer, user, or … planet) in relation to its product touchpoints over time. This would result in the following analysis:

  • A customer journey is largely over when the customer has purchased the product (as a rule, digital platforms are mostly cyclical customer journeys that are automatically renewed every month, but essentially it is about concluding and maintaining a contractual and financial commitment). To stay with the example: from a customer journey perspective, it is good if more and more people fly to more and more yoga retreats every month, if possible, because this demonstrates a strong platform commitment and continuously flushes subscription fees into the cash register. For the company selling PVC yoga mats, it’s even easier: once the mat is sold, that’s already enough in terms of the business model. Whether or not the mat is used frequently after purchase is of secondary importance.
  • A user journey is largely over when users have been able to exploit their own potential through the product. In our yoga example, there is no limit in the positive sense. Only one’s own motivation – or the collapse of this motivation – decides when the user journey is over. The more motivating the virtual yoga exercises are, for example, the greater the chances that the user dropout rate will be low and the more likely it is that the face-to-face retreats will become less necessary as a motivating factor. Basically, a good active UX makes travel less necessary, keeps users motivated and, in combination with a subscription model, guarantees business success.
  • The Planet Journey only ends when the planet has completely finished with a product or service. So even if a product – such as our PVC yoga mat – has long since fallen into disuse and ended up on the scrap heap of history, the planet still has something to nibble on. This also applies to digital products and services, because if we take more and more long-distance journeys to expand our well-being, then we are imposing more on the planet than we did before this digitalization. So even purely digital designers must think the planet journey through to the very end in planet-centered design: including sustainable production, resource-conserving use, and traceable decommissioning. Unfortunately, the planet as a stakeholder can’t show much gratitude, for example by giving the sustainably working design team an extra budget pot for particularly sustainable UX work. In terms of return on investment (ROI) – that is, from a business perspective – the user-centric or even customer-centric approach has a clear advantage over the planet-centric approach.

Impact-Driven Design

The weakness of the planet-centered design approach lies in the centering of the design strategy on a single monolithic stakeholder, who may well have a legitimate interest in sustainable design, but has no monetary resources and can only provide feedback very sluggishly or indirectly. The weakness, then, is the lack of business orientation.

Sounds positive, can also be negative: Impact

The term “impact” has certain advantages from a business point of view, because every business-thinking project supporter is aware of the fact that every business must have a measurable “impact”. The term no longer needs to be introduced. The business person wants to be able to tell from the “impact” of his business model that his business has come to stay.

Interestingly, the term impact has a purely positive connotation in the business world. Interesting because one of the most famous “impacts” in history was ultimately caused by a gigantic meteorite, which then ultimately wiped out the dinosaurs. But it’s precisely because of this positively glorified relationship to the term “impact” that I think it’s exactly the right one to approach the topic of design and sustainability while achieving business success… because it opens doors.

And there are other good reasons for the term:

  • Impact has always been measured in business and finds its way into the business dashboards of decision-makers and managers. The bridge is therefore already half built when it comes to including “environmental impact” as another KPI in the business dashboard. b) Many digital design professionals and UX designers already know the term “impact” from their existing method boxes and therefore do not have to get used to a new, additional term. c) Many of these designers will certainly be able to become active quickly when it comes to including not only positive but also negative impact in a corresponding “impact map”. In a user journey, not only positive user experiences are already recorded, but also the negative ones (i.e., gains and gains), so why not also negative “environmental impacts”?

Die Leitfrage bei der Design-Strategie lautet daher in Zukunft vielleicht immer weniger “Für wen machen wir Design und warum?” (also Zielgruppen-zentriert) sondern eher “Warum muss unser Design etwas bewirken und was?” (also Auswirkungs-getrieben). Man käme also zu einer Art Impact-Driven Design.

The guiding question in design strategy in the future may therefore be less and less “Who are we designing for and why?” (i.e., target group-centric) but rather “Why does our design have to make a difference and what?” (i.e., impact-driven). This would lead to a kind of impact-driven design.

Theory of Change Framework

In order not to have to reinvent the wheel when introducing an impact-driven design, one can best make use of the “Theory of Change” framework. The framework deals intensively with the question of how change can be brought about in general. In this case, the change that has occurred and can be measured equates to the impact. At the end of the day, design wants nothing more than to bring about change – or does so implicitly, without wanting to. That’s ultimately why people spread their thumbs and index fingers on the glass surface of their smartphones or bash half-empty ketchup bottles.

The Theory of Change envisions the following chain in bringing about change:

Input Activities Output Outcomes Impact

To arrive at strategic design decisions, one can now move backwards within this Theory of Change chain.

  • Impact: What positive change do we want to achieve? What negative change do we want to avoid?.
  • Outcome: What impact could measurably prove that this change has occurred or been prevented?
  • Output: What design artifacts and work products do we need to deliver to get to and measure the desired impact?
  • Activities: What design activities lead to the desired artifacts and work products?
  • Input: What problems and needs exist that we can eliminate through design?

Summary

Along the Theory of Change, designers are continuously reminded that their design should not only be human-centered and bring active user experiences to light, but must also have a positive impact beyond the user experience and the lifecycle of the product. The measurable nature of “impact” bridges the gap to business success, and impact-driven designs are more likely to be heard than traditional, purely human-centered designs. Impact-driven measurements will make it more and more obvious that people count it as personal development to act and think more sustainably themselves. Impact-driven KPIs will show that an investment in resource-efficient virtual user experiences can have more positive impact – both from a business and sustainability perspective – than an investment in purely physical, resource-intensive user experiences.

 

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