User Experience in the Age of Sustainability

Designers, as makers of products and services, are key stewards of our planet because the products and services we design influence the ways in which people live.

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What we design, how we design, the materials with which we design and for what purposes we design, set the pace for emerging cultural behaviours.  We owe it to ourselves as stewards of our world, and as designers from all spectrum to consider the impact of each design that we create on the overall impact of not only our collective culture and cultural practices but also on the environment at large. Accordingly, for the fields of Design and User Experience to remain progressively relevant ,  that we must begin to  form a closer affinity to the Sustainability movement.

For many people, including designers, sustainability is the buzzword of the moment.  Over the last 30 years, however, there has been a growing awareness of the environmental problems caused by the exponential growth and human development worldwide. The higher demands placed on the planet due to the growing demands of such things as food, energy and materials is reaching epidemic proportions. In short, many of the problems affecting us today are happening at rates faster than we can curb and counter. Some of these specific problems include the high rates of consumer goods wastage, air pollution, energy production, transportation and the consumption of natural resources. These are only a few of the problems with which we have to contend. But as we begin to narrow the focus down to our specific roles as designers, some concrete examples of these problem include the ever-pervasive mobile phones as well as other electronics with their high rates of disposals. Subsequently, these high rates of product disposal dictate higher rates of natural resources needed to replace those discarded items. While not only applicable to mobile phones and consumer or electronic goods, there are easily identifiable examples with which almost everyone can relate. These example of wastage can also be applied to many other scenarios, and serves to compound the overall problem, when we begin to apply to our work as designers of products as a whole. What this means at a fundamental level is that as designers from all spectrum, we need to actively engage and find solutions for this growing epidemic. We need to have a clearer  understanding of sustainability and what it means for us if we are to remain progressively relevant. We need to understand:

  • What it means to be sustainable in the context of our work
  • How to embrace, advocate and strategize for more sustainable design practices
  • Practice sound environmental design with impact in our work

The premise of sustainability  asserts that for us to continue to survive as a society, we must ensure that both present and future generations can continue to thrive without compromising the lives and existence of either generation. This means that as we go about the task of designing products and services, we should do so more consciously and responsibility  and comply to a principle of sustainable design – the ideal that what we do today cannot take away from enabling future generations to sustain themselves. There are many drivers also forcing us to pay attention and one of these is the growing base of users advocating for more eco-conscious design.

Today, users are more aware of the environmental issues that face us collectively, and their rising expectations in product and service design, is a  major trends and drivers of sustainability as a business essential. User experience and design is therefore strategically positioned to change our value offering by incorporating sustainability metrics as part of the overall design criteria. Accordingly, we have an opportunity to transform user experience and design from a commoditized offering into a value-critical service by incorporating sustainability into the existing and emerging  frameworks that drive our practices. We are gifted with a foundation in good analytic tools and methods that can be extended to collect additional data from users about their product usage cycles.  Furthermore, the trends and challenges for sustainable practices make the business case for adopting and implementing a sustainability framework that incorporates user experience as essential.  The key success factors for implementing a sustainability-led user experience is foundational and necessary if we are to survive as a field with evolved value.

At its core, the design of everyday products, solutions and /or services is the problem that underlies the environmental issues we face today, and which we will continue to face the future. Design and designers are part of the environmental problem and we should feature prominently in finding solutions that produce more sustainable creations. Whether it is the design of a poorly built product that breaks down because of poor material selection, or the decisions that we make to design a physical product over a comparable service subscription solution option, are all part of the kinds of decisions that we we will have to address as we move forward. These are all decisions that eco-conscious user experience researchers and designers will face in the future.

At a more detailed level, we need to begin to question the value and output of the designs with which we are engaged and consciously address many questions that are have design touch-points. Some of these questions include but are not limited to:

  • What is the ultimate goal of the design?
  • Is there really a need for the new design? In some cases this decision is out of our control. However we can become advocates where possible.
  • Are there solutions that would require little to less materials – for example a web – based service subscription over a solution that produces material waste?
  • If material are used in the solution, are the materials used in the product ethically sourced?
  • If material are used in the product you must design, are these materials toxic?
  • Can my users service these products if they break?
  • Is the product durable?
  • Is the product too heavy; is it portable?
  • Will the product have an afterlife?
  • Is the product energy efficient?
  • If there is a User Interface component have you provided the user with energy saving and management options?
  • What does this design mean for universal access?

All of these questions map easily onto sustainability goals that we can set at the onset of design by having a deep level of user understanding and needs through research. Today the push for more eco-awareness in society, and subsequently in design, has created a new class of consumers,  whose core values align with such things as:

  • Avoiding pollution;
  • Conserving natural resources;
  • Eliminating wasteful products;
  • Being energy efficient;
  • Universal design and access.

These consumers (users) have different criteria for their product experiences; they demand integration of their core values, not only in the final products but also in the design process. Understanding this paradigmatic user trends is the role of user experience in the age of sustainability. How can we respond to the changing user needs and goals and how can we tie this back to our role in development and design? Therefore, it stands to reason that as the field of sustainability ripens into a practice, we need to take a deeper look through the lens of our own world and anchor ourselves solidly on this large and amorphous field called sustainability and respond to the collective views of a growing force of socially conscious users.

How can we engage?

Regardless of the type of designer you are (visual, experience, interaction, or other, you can engage initially by embracing some fundamental guiding principles to design. Alan Cooper and Robert Reimann About Face (2003) touches upon the topic of ethical interaction design which could be applied here and used as foundational guides to sustainable design. Cooper and Reimann list four principles that designers can use as guides to design. The principles in many ways resonate with the sustainability movement and are still relevant today. According to Cooper and Reimann, interaction design needs to follow these key principles. They should be:

  • Ethical [considerate, helpful]: Do no harm; improve human situations
  • Purposeful [useful and usable]: Help users achieve their goals and aspirations: Accommodate uses contexts and capacities
  • Pragmatic [viable and feasible]: Help commissioning organizations achieve their goals; accommodate business and technical requirements;
  • Elegant [efficient, artful, affective]: Represent the simplest complete solution; Possess internal (self-revealing, understandable) coherence and appropriately accommodate and stimulate cognition and emotion

Further, we must engage at the tactical and strategic levels to translate the changing relationship that businesses will have with customers to ensure we meet a new standard of user experience.  Beginning by employing the basic ideas purported in such old time favorite books like Cooper and Reimann is a great first step.  The growing base of informed and ecologically conscious users do not care only about functionality but impose their core values on the products they purchase and chose to use in their daily lives. As user researchers and product designer we hold the key to engaging with the wider movement of sustainability at both strategic and tactical levels.

Why else should we care?

Against the backdrop of the growing criticism and the negative social and environmental implications of globalization, many companies have become active in reporting on activities undertaken to prevent these externalities of production. The trickle-down effect that will eventually have all layers of industry having shouldering some level of responsibility has led to an onslaught of new job titles such as a recent Amazon job posts:  Sr. Sustaining Engineer, Sustaining Product Design Engineer, Product Design Sustaining Manager. We need not even look far to see that companies in the Design space, such as Artefact are already taking strides into embracing sustainability as a part of their design cycle. On the reporting front, take for instance trends in Europe and Japan where sustainability reporting accompanies regulatory requirements and government encouragements. The number of reports that now include social reporting alongside financial, has increased considerably. Understanding and viewing the wider sustainability initiative through the lens of our own practice is important to evolve user experience and design as fields of practice and remain relevant as key decision drivers in the product lifecycle in the end.

Kem Kramer

Kem-Laurin is a User Experience Strategist, Innovator and Dreamer of Solutions; she is also author of User Experience in the Age of Sustainability: A Practitioner’s Blueprint and a pioneer of formal User Experience research practice at Research in Motion (makers of the Blackberry). She currently works at Autodesk as the User Experience Design Manager for Online/Mobile Team. In her spare, you can find her at home with her two young boys or weeding her perennial garden – two of her passions.

4 comments on this article

  1. Randall Blair on

    Want to put this into practice? 2-4 November people all over the world are coming together to devote a weekend focused on sustainability. It’s the Global Sustainability Jam! Find a location near you and jam with us!

  2. kem laurin lubin on

    Thanks for sharing this link.Hopefully readers will take the initiative to become engaged in this evolving and significant topic.

  3. Adrian Chan on

    Thanks for covering this. It’s an immensely important topic. The good news is that many of us have embraced sustainability. We get that the planet has limited resources; we get that progress is not linear; we get that less can be more.

    So in terms of values, the ecological movement now 40 years old has largely done its job.

    So well, in fact, that if anything we are at risk of corporate green-washing. Co-optation of the real critique by commercial enterprise — and further production and sale of goods and services packaged as eco-friendly.

    I’m of the mind that market forces, more than anything, will result in real change. The consumer can affect market demand by demanding green. The designer can affect manufacture and marketing by speaking green. But ultimately, bottom-line costs and top-line revenues will be the true constraint on resource exhaustion and waste.

    I don’t know if or how design talks to market supply and demand. If anything, our design successes have only stoked the desires of tens of millions worldwide yet to enjoy the comforts of the middle class. The question points to a bigger issue, and that is: does design offer a critique of the means of its own production — the production of product?

    Presently, I’d say no, it doesn’t. But perhaps it should.

  4. kem laurin lubin on

    Thank you for your comments. I think for the most part, as many of us do not see the immediate cause and effect of our design decisions it is easy to discard it as not our present concern or just green wash to be rid of the problem. We are the only species that creates such an abundance of waste and have yet not figured out how to close the loop on some of our bad design decisions. We have not began to actively address in many ways a proactive approach to good design as we are still grappling with reactive approach to fixing the bad designs that we have created. A time will come soon as we have traction and momentum building compared to 10 years ago.
    Also, we, as consumers, are also part of the market forces/ state apparatuses that in this Althusserian fashion, are goaded into believing such market fabrications that we always need newer models of everything. Some of the questions I have asked in the book for designers of all shades include such things as:
    1. How much energy is consumed in the production and use of the product?
    2. If the product has a user interface – is it efficiently designed from a sustainability perspective?
    3. How were the constituent parts sourced?
    4. Can we empower end users to service product as opposed to buying new ones?
    5. Does the product engage users in allowing some active management of energy preservation (user messaging and notifications/ alerts)
    6. Does the product provide energy usage management guidance as part of the out of box experience? For example smart usage guide?
    7. What is the performance of the product in market with the user?
    8. What are the user’s perceived and real experiences with the product?
    9. What is the user’s perception of the ecological value of the product – its durability?
    10. What are some of the ways we can close the loop on a design to ensure minimal amount of waste?
    11. Can we extend the life of a product after its utility has expired in one form?

    Product Design and Engineering combined are a key part of the general problem, and whilst a clueless child of the Markets we do stand a chance to correct the path and make wiser design decision. To use the cliche “For the greater good” is too idealistic. But we should aspire to design better when we know better and we do.