Its time to think, act and design in a sustainable way

The Internet doesn’t come out of a vacuum.

As for many, I didn’t realize the impact of digital on the planet. It represents 3,8% of Greenhouse Gas Emission in 2019 (GreenIT), sensitively the same amount as aviation and it will continue to grow, even more with 5G coming. But after the guilty phase that followed my awareness of digital pollution, it became clear that I have a responsibility, as a user and even more as a designer.

In its 2019 report, GreenIT.fr hierarchized the different sources of the impact of the digital world on the environment as follows, in descending order of importance:

  1. Manufacturing of user equipment: User equipment is divided into 3 main sources which are smartphones, televisions, and connected objects. It represents 34 billion pieces of equipment and its weight.
  2. Power consumption of user equipment
  3. Power consumption of Network
  4. Power consumption of data centers (to power and cool the servers)
  5. Manufacturing of network equipment
  6. Manufacturing of equipment hosted by computer centers (servers…)

A group of sheep rushes to a shop after reading an ad for the new smartphone. Consumers also need to change their behaviour.

A group of sheep rushes to a shop after reading an ad for the new smartphone. Consumers also need to change their behaviour.

A digital sustainable design approach allows us to act directly on power consumption and to act indirectly on other impacts related to manufacturing. Indeed through lighter and less energy-consuming services, you allow to extend the equipment life and slowing down the need for renewal.

Sadly, the awareness and the beauty of the Sustainable Design approach seems not to be enough to bring companies to talk and invest in it, but what will?

Let face it, not many companies today really care about the environment, and greenwashing is the norm. But this can, and I believe, will change. Contrary to popular belief sustainability is not all about constraints and costs. It can actually be a real opportunity for your business and should include CSR (corporate social responsibility) objectives. Just talking about my field of work, digital, we can see many opportunities such as:

  • Seducing a new (and often younger) client base and build loyalty
  • Reaching a larger crowd by being accessible on many more devices and low connectivity
  • Converting better by (really) focusing the design effort on the user needs and design a lighter digital solution
  • Reducing the power consumption of your IT architecture and therefore its costs
  • Renewing less often your digital equipment by tackling obsolescence

The magical thing with sustainable design is that not only the user needs are better served but their devices will last longer meanwhile business is allowed to flourish…Yet in order to start designing in a sustainable way and avoid the trap of greenwashing, you need to work on your legitimacy.

A bank representative announces the release of the new lowtech website. This same fellow shakes hands with a polluter.

A bank representative announces the release of the new lowtech website. This same fellow shakes hands with a polluter.

Companies must be congruent, In other words, aligning their actions with its communication. Having a sustainable design approach would mean not only to focus on its web and mobile applications but starting to review its entire range of activities. For a bank, for example, it would mean focusing on the projects its finances through money loans and avoid projects that destroy forests, pollute rivers, or endanger species… Doing such introspection is essential in order to avoid any contradiction between the commitments the bank made and the reality of its activities. Lastly, this type of contradiction between green communication and anti-green activities will become less and less acceptable to a society that becomes more and more sensitive to greenwashing. In the world of tomorrow, all decisions will have to be made from an ecological point of view at each level of the company (bosses, managers, decision-makers, designers, marketers, developers…).

Becoming sustainable requires awareness, honesty, commitment, and time. And yes, we can and we must. But how do to do so?

The most effective solution to reduce the environmental impact of your digital applications is actually to choose a hosting provider that’s is 100% powered by renewable energy. Greenpeace, in its 2017 report “Click clean: Who is winning the race to build a green internet?”, has established a ranking of the websites of large companies based on their use of renewable power sources.

Unfortunately, for many companies, switching to a different hosting solution can be a complicated task for technical but also political reasons. Hopefully, there are many other things that you can do. Let me show you the main principle in sustainable design.

Principle 1: Putting the user at the center is good for the planet

A person (designer, decision-maker, manager…) asks a user and the planet what they both need

A person (designer, decision-maker, manager…) asks a user and the planet what they both need

Displaying relevant information at the right time in a user’s journey and doing nothing else, is actually the most sustainable way to design a user-centric digital experience. Indeed, if your goal is to minimize the amount of energy for having your user achieving a specific task, you want your experience to be as straightforward as possible. This way, he/she spends less time on your web site and therefore uses less power.

The first good practice is to properly identify user needs in order to offer services that precisely meet their needs and eliminate all non-essential functionalists.

Utility first. A tool, product, that does not meet any needs will be a product, tool, or service that consumes unnecessarily.

In order to succeed in having a sustainable and efficient experience, you will have to focus not only on UX (User Experience) and UI (User Interface) design but also on content strategies (editors), analytics, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and development. In my experience, those expertises are too often forgotten in the designing process as clients rarely focus on anything else than seeing screens (wireframes and mock-ups). In sustainable design, it is essential not to forget those expertises in the designing process.

Here is why:

A user journey begins long before the user arrives on your web site. What you need to do is to optimize his way from search engine to the relevant page of your website avoiding peregrinations. In order to achieve such a thing, you will start by using good search engine optimization practices. This will allows your pages to be better ranked and therefore easier for a user to reach. The less time he/she spends on the internet looking for his/her needs, the less energy is consumed.

Once the user arrives on your website, he/she needs to achieve their goal as quickly as possible and the choices you make to promote your content matter. It has to be clear and understandable. It should only focus on helping the user to find what he/she wants. Meaning reducing information at its minimum, no superfluous, removing any potential distractions that could keep the user longer on the web page and distract him from his/her tasks. Marketing and communications are not kings anymore. The user and the planet are.

In short:

The more seamless the user experience is,

the less time the user spends searching,

therefore less time on your website,

fewer network calls

and less energy consumed in a datacenter

and your user’s terminal.

The lightness of your digital solution is also a key criteria to support the effectiveness of your experience. No matter how well designed your experience is, if not supported by technology, your efforts will be in vain.

The longer your website pages take to load, the more the risk of losing the audience increases and with it the amount of energy provided.

The average web page, according to the HTTP Archive, crested at more than 2Mb in april 2020. Frédérique Bordage, founder of GreenIT, often starts his lectures with this riddle: « What does an astronaut have in common with an email? 70 kb!. In 1969 the capacity of the Apollo 11 capsule was 70 kb but today 70 ko is barely enough to send an email. »

The digital services we design are getting heavier and heavier and require more storage space and more energy to run. To curb this bloatware growth we need to design lighter services.

Basically, the more a webpage will contain components (video, image, CSS files, js, typography) the more it will be likely to weight (Mo, Ko), and the longer the loading time will be and the more energy will be required. In addition to being energy-consuming, you increase the risk of losing your users if the loading time of your pages is too long. Several years ago, Amazon had found that 1s of load lag time would cost up to 1.6 billion in sales per year.

Also, the more complex a web page is, the greater the risk of lengthening your user’s session time due to the amount of information to read, analyze, and understand is.

That’s why you need to consider the technical impacts of your design from the outset. To ensure and facilitate light development.

In short:

The lighter the weight of a website’s pages is, the less time it will take to load them, therefore less energy to display them.

In addition to having satisfied users thanks to a fast display, your audience and conversion rate will increase, the better your financial results will be.

The faster the user finds what he/she is looking for, the less energy will be used (fewer network calls, less heat released by the terminal used by the user).

And with such experiences, you can be sure to get satisfied users, a better financial return of your digital services, and less energy consumed.

It is a win-win situation for companies that are willing to reduce their environmental impact, by being more sustainable in their manufacturing process, deliveries, nature of offers, and digital services. And we can hope that consumer behavior will increasingly push companies and governments to accelerate this paradigm shift.

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