Designing for people, the planet and the email@example.com
UX can do more to make things better for the planet and the wallet by including these non-human persona into our thinking
You don't have to work different. What's good for people can also be good for the planet and the wallet
We’re in deep doo-doo.
We’ve abused our planet's recourses to the point it can give no more. Wars and markets have exponentially increased to cost we pay for the energy we need. We’re in a crisis of our own making – it’s up to us to design a way out.
Can UX save the world?
The answer is – it can certainly help, by working hard to make things better by making better things.
As innovators and designers, we have a long and strong history of making better things in times of crisis or when we’re faced with a critical need.
The Economic Historian Alexander Field believes the 1930s – the time of the great depression – to be the ‘most technologically progressive’ decade of the 20th Century. A decade of innovation that produced numerous products that changed the world, such as sliced bread; the car radio; and Monopoly!
Microwave technology was originally used as a radar to help locate enemies during World War II. Its ability to cook food was only discovered accidentally. Today over 90% of US kitchens have a microwave oven.
Vinton Cerf is best known as one of the designers of the architecture for the internet, helping to shape the rules that dictate where internet traffic goes and, about a decade later, helping to deliver the first commercial email system. One of the driving forces of his globally transformational endeavours was a critical need to reliably communicate with his wife – both hearing-impaired. Text-based communications didn’t just make things better for Vinton and his wife Sigrid, nor the roughly 5% of people on this planet with a hearing disability, it made life better for all of us. In 2023 we send and receive 347.3 billion emails a day.
So, let's dig deeper into how UX designers can don their superhero capes to help save this burning world.
Firstly, let's quickly consider what we mean by UX. “User experience (UX) is the interaction and experience people have with a company's products and services". It stands to reason then, that the better we make those interactions and experiences, the better for the people and the better for the company.
But how can we extrapolate from this that it MUST also be better for the planet and better for the wallet?
I would argue that if an experience with a company’s product or service allows me to successfully perform the task I’m looking to achieve, with the minimum of steps, and without being confused, distracted, or interrupted, that’s good for me and the positive vibes I have for the company in question.
It also requires the least amount of energy to store, transfer, and consume the UI affording me this functionality.
And this is key to how we, as UX’ers, can collectively save every Watt we can, all those kilowatts, required to deliver the experiences we create for the people that use the products we design.
The generally accepted way of measuring how carbon efficient a digital experience is, is by calculating its combined size (kb). The reason for this is threefold:
The greater the size of the pages the more energy is needed for the storage space in the data centre(s) that hold these digital experiences.
The more kb needed to be transferred from that data centre, through the global telecom networks, to the end user device, the more energy is required to move all those pixels.
The greater the combined size of the experience, and the length of time the user is active within it, the greater the energy consumed by the end-user device.
If the Internet were a country, it would be the 6th largest consumer of energy today.
The world is now on fire, and consciously or unconsciously, we are contributing to the problem.
But this can change. It turns out that if we design things better for people, it’s also better for the planet – and the wallet. I’d suggest 6 UX principles – that we use every day to design human-centred products, that can be equally powerful in creating planet and wallet-centred products too.
1 - Be efficient with task steps
By minimising the number of steps it takes to complete a task, we reduce the total energy requirement for that task. The key is reducing the energy consumed by the person’s device whilst undertaking a given task.
2 - Only collect the data you need
By only collecting the data you need from your customer to deliver the service they want, you reduce the time (and energy) required to enter that data. And, as a bonus, you’ll also save the cost (and energy) of storing all that unnecessary data.
3 - Do the work for your customer
If you can do an amount of work for the user, instead of asking them to spend time and effort doing tasks they don’t need to do, you’ll save them energy, cost, and time. That’s a win, win, win.
4 - Be relevant, don’t interrupt or annoy
By keeping the user focused on the task at hand, and not distracting them with unnecessary or unneeded information, you’ll reduce the amount of time (and energy) they need to spend within your experience. And, if you only prompt them to action when they really need to do something, you’ll minimise unnecessary visits and maximise energy efficiency.
5 - Only show the user what’s useful
Users don’t always need all the information all the time. By using smart progressive disclosure principles, we can not only keep information relevant to user needs, we can also reduce the wasted energy of displaying data that isn’t required at that time.
6 - Think smart – think smart meter
Finally, but by no means only, how can we think a little smarter about the experiences that we’re designing, weaving energy-conscious narratives into the user flow, or taking the friction out of being smart with energy consumption? Here are a couple of examples:
Octopus energy has a neat feature woven into their quoting experience that detects whether your laptop is plugged in – if you are but you have ample battery charge, they suggest you unplug for a while – saving you money and the planet a little energy.
The Wiser App from Schneider Electric, launched at CES23, makes it easy for homeowners to monitor and manage their energy usage, predict spend and set budgets to reduce their bills. The app has features such as Energy Use Insight – allowing users to see, in real-time, which devices are consuming what levels of energy – information that might just get you turning power-hungry devices off; EV Charging Optimisation – seamlessly charging your EV when there is less demand from other home devices and the cost of power is lowest; And Green Power Prioritisation – prioritising electrical loads when renewable power is available.
So, where can you start?
As designers, one of the well-used tools in our toolkit is the User Persona. They help us frame our thinking around the needs and behaviours of the people using the products and services we design.
What if ‘The Planet’ was a persona? An ecological lens through which you considered the functionality and usage of your product, and the needs it should afford this critical stakeholder. How might this influence your design work?
Another tool we use is the Customer Journey Map. They help us evaluate a customer journey to identify low and high points, failures to set expectations, unnecessary or too-long steps, and moments of truth.
What if ‘The Wallet’ was an essential element tracked throughout the journey? A financial lens to track the cost of dwell time, user input lag, or high processor-intensive activities. Maybe this could influence went and how certain activities are undertaken, potentially recommending times of off-peak energy tariffs.
Whatever you’re designing, it’s your responsibility to use your talents to design responsibly. Creating better things that make things better for the planet – in these times of ecological crisis, and better for the wallet – in the cost-of-living crisis.