The general discourse on sustainability is often about resources, energy and waste avoidance. What does sustainability mean for digital products? Digitally, there is no waste, and resources are rather indirect. But the IT sector is responsible for 4% of global CO2 emissions, the same amount as global air travel causes. Where do these emissions come from? An email generates 10g of CO2 because it travels an average of 15,000 km on its way from sender to recipient. Streaming services (including video chat) generate 205g of CO2 per hour worldwide, due to the energy requirements of servers, routers, etc. Consuming gigabytes blows a lot of CO2. There are many very useful articles, e.g. how to design websites in a way that blameless visitors do not unknowingly use much more energy than necessary e.g.
- Sustainable Web Design: How to design sustainable websites
- Sustainable Web Design: Everything You Need to Know
For us as UX designers, this means that we need an awareness of the amount of data that users have to load in order to use a service. However, relevant amounts can only be saved in this way if the number of users is very high. It is unclear how much leaner a web service has to be to achieve that a whole server is switched off somewhere, which then really saves a relevant amount of CO2. So is it sustainable UX design to minimize traffic? The truth is more complex.
Digital products should enable users to work efficiently and effectively (lean) as well as to use their devices and products longer before they dispose of them (long-lasting). I have collected ideas and suggestions on how to achieve this in this article.
Lean: Making workflows leaner
Digital products are steering consumer behavior, from online shopping to production processes. If you can cut out a printed confirmation in a production cycle, for example, you save CO2 and resources from the very first use. Sustainable UX design is less about the software and more about the resulting user behavior. For example, sensible notification of component wear and tear allows users to service machines sooner, ensuring longer life. A good error notification concept makes it easier for users to react faster and more adequately and ensures less waste, so that raw material lasts longer. Users can be empowered to perform their tasks more efficiently; this is not necessarily about saving time, but primarily about efficiency in terms of resources used. If this is already taken into account in the development of user journeys and workflows, users can behave more sustainably.
Another example is the level of chemicals in laboratory machines. Let’s say there is a user need to be warned in time before the chemical is empty. The UX team then designs an “Attention, low level” style warning for the interface. With this information, the lab staff can replace the container with the chemical in time. If the user need were only slightly rephrased, for example, “Lab workers always want to have a sufficient amount of the solution for their upcoming tasks,” the UX team would be more likely to design a precise level indicator. Users are then not forced to replace the entire container and dump the leftovers inside because they can’t determine exactly how much they need to refill. Instead, they can continue to use the remainder and simply refill the optimal amount. This also saves the lab procurement costs. Optimizing workflows is nothing new, but one of the main motivations for companies to involve UX designers* in their projects. This is good news, because it means we already have well-developed and proven methods for this. But I would like to raise awareness, especially to pay attention to the resource saving potential.
Lean: Developing the right thing
In addition to simplifying workflows, the everyday work of UX designers includes analyzing requirements. This is another approach to sustainable UX design. Do the formulated requirements have real added value for the users? We need to focus on addressing the identified user needs and not be tempted by additional features where it is unclear whether they will be used at all. With this approach, both development capacity and data can be saved, or the development capacity can be used for something that really benefits the users.
What happens when the view is broadened and, in addition to users, the environment or the resources used are also considered? There are a few exciting articles on this topic
- Tools for environment-centered designers: Actant Mapping Canvas
- A brief introduction of environment-centred design
Broadening our perspective beyond our persona to its context, its environment, and the whole system in which it operates should also help to challenge requirements.
Here, too, I would like to make an example. When shopping online, users often have to select a shipping method. It is obvious that customers want to receive their parcels as quickly as possible, so shipping time is usually the main selection criterion. If the UX team were to focus not only on the users but also on environmental factors when analyzing the requirements, requirements for the carbon footprint of the shipping method could emerge. In addition to pure duration, other criteria (or KPIs) could be added to the interface, such as shipping by truck, train, or plane, or an indicator of the shipping method’s carbon footprint. This would empower users to make an informed decision.
In day-to-day project work, such a broad question quickly gets out of focus. We are currently experimenting with AI support that checks the content of user needs or user journeys against criteria that would presumably have to be adapted for each context or domain. The idea is that the AI will alert UX designers if there are environmental risks or unplanned use of resources.
Long-lasting: Support older hardware
Is it enough to save resources? Our linear economic system is based on growth, the opposite of saving. The “circular economy” provides interesting answers. Raw materials should be used or even reused for as long as possible after their costly extraction and processing in order to enter their “end-of-life” phase as late as possible, with which they flow back into industry as secondary raw materials. This increases the added value of the raw materials and opens up new business models with a much better environmental footprint. As UX designers, we can influence the use phase of products. This aspect has not been focused on in UX design processes so far. Should we design more durable digital products?
Digital products scale differently than physical products because they do not generate waste or require raw materials. A farmer can milk a cow on his pasture and drink its milk without any global impact. If, on the other hand, everyone wants to drink milk, this leads to environmentally harmful structures. However, developing an app for just one or a few people would not be very sustainable. The mechanisms are different for software than for physical products. Software is all the more durable the longer it runs on older end devices and different devices and adapts in a modular fashion. Software updates and changes make sense because newer software is often more efficient. There are arguments why an old car should continue to be driven; with software, on the other hand, an update is usually more sustainable than continuing to run the old one or even buying new hardware.
Long-lasting: Designing software according to standards
So it’s not about the software lasting longer, but being able to react more flexibly to hardware requirements. From a UX design perspective, this can be supported by focusing on standardization and responsive design. Complex custom controls cannot be completely avoided depending on the software domain (and also satisfy the certain urge for recognition of UX designers), but sticking to standards is more sustainable, as these tend to work better on different devices and are more likely to meet accessibility requirements.
Instead of boasting about particularly innovative solutions, we should in future boast about solutions that allow our users to keep their end devices longer, so that it is also worthwhile, for example, to repair old smartphones and thus save rare earths. There is a nice article on this that calls for more humility in UX design. It also makes sense to include established providers for login and user management, for example. Here, there are providers who have been optimizing their service for particularly efficient data consumption for years. You can never catch up with this lead in your own project. In terms of standardization, design systems are also more sustainable, as long as the components are responsive.
Long-lasting: Designing for future requirements
Even though the focus should be on the longevity of hardware or materials used, software manufacturers still have an interest in ensuring that the software itself provides added value for as long as possible. To ensure this, our software should be built on sound software design principles, and its functionality should remain relevant in the years to come, especially by ensuring that we already comply with future regulations such as accessibility. For example, the Accessibility Strengthening Act stipulates that a digital product must enable communication, including interpersonal communication, operation, information, control, and orientation through more than one sensory channel. Visual elements should provide for flexible adjustment of size, brightness and contrast, and more.
Another example of relevant regulations is the Supply Chain Act, which requires transparent insight into the manufacturing processes of all suppliers, with a focus on environmental risks and human rights violations, as well as complaint options for users. From 2023, it will initially apply to companies with at least 3,000 employees in Germany, and from 2024 also to companies with at least 1,000 employees.
Long-Lasting: Shaping the bond between product and users
Many products today are designed to have a short lifetime, keyword planned obsolescence. This often involves strategies that are also to be implemented through marketing. A new product must always be more desirable than the current one. Therefore, a key aspect for durable products is also the emotional bond between a product and its users. If they trust in associated services (i.e., the available apps or software products), for example, they will be less likely to want to replace their devices. Attractiveness also plays a significant role in this context. In UI design, either longevity and thus classic aesthetics should be emphasized where possible, or the look should be continuously developed and adapted so that the service remains desirable. Personalization can achieve the same effect. Here we see potential in the future through the use of AI in the design process, which could capture individual data and create personalized UIs.
Long-lasting: Changing the narrative
It is time to find and realize the right narrative to shape a sustainable future for us and future generations. Designers play a central role here, because they are the ones who shape the social framework and thus influence consumer society, as Leyla Acaroglu aptly points out in the video.
The future is not yet fully designed, and UX designers have a significant influence on what that future will look like. This ranges from designing new technologies to influencing societal trends, such as what is considered “cool” and what is considered “not cool.
It is critical that we elevate the conversation about design and sustainability to a higher level. We need to move away from the notion that sustainability is merely an “add-on” that can be added after the fact. Instead, we need to address sustainability as early as the definition of our business goals, prioritization of projects, and requirements gathering. Small changes lead to big changes. Just discussing sustainability regularly in meetings will encourage others to ask similar questions in their own contexts. This is how to effect change in any organization. It is not necessary to establish special roles or job descriptions for sustainable design; many of the approaches in this article can already be achieved with methods and processes from UX design. All that is needed is to focus attention on the right questions with a new narrative.
The concern that companies or management are not open to the topic of sustainability is unfounded, according to Gunther Rothermel of SAP. According to his presentation at the UIG Conference 2023, many CEOs have already set the topic as a goal for themselves (for example, also at SAP). He observes a new generation of leaders who are intrinsically motivated to make sustainable decisions. They bring a strong personal commitment to environmental protection and social responsibility. The approaches in this article also do not generate any explicit additional development effort for customers and clients; on the contrary, they are even more focused on efficient resource use than a pure user-centric approach.
So there is reason for optimism, yet the collected approaches are not easy to achieve. As UX designers, we need to understand the complexities and empower our users to achieve their goals with less material or energy use (lean) and to use and want to use their devices and products longer by adapting the narrative and putting sustainability at the core of our work (long-lasting).
We have aroused your interest? Take a look at our services!