UX Booth: Sustainable Design

Originally posted on

The international scientific consensus is that the negative impacts of global warming are being felt now, and forecasts are grim. Only organized global action will stave off the worst. Designers, problem solvers by nature, have made their own contribution in this fight against climate change. For example:

  • Architects work with building codes and standards such as LEED to ensure buildings are energy-efficient, and compete to create zero-energy houses
  • Industrial designers adopt efficiency standards for appliances
  • Disastrous smogs caused consumers and legislators to push for tighter vehicle emissions—and car designers delivered not just by making more efficient engines but by designing whole new classes of vehicles that don’t emit greenhouse gases at all
So… what about UX professionals? Unless you work for a climate non-profit or eco-business, it might seem like we don’t have as much to offer as the folks mentioned above. Our work doesn’t have an obvious environmental impact, after all.

My IA Summit Talk, titled “Sustainable UX,” challenges the assumption that climate-change is only for “physical” designers. The design and development community has an under-appreciated pollution problem of our own that we can tackle. And we, as designers, are perfectly placed to influence consumer behavior in a greener direction through how we tweak the design and intent of the things we create.

The talk considers UX work through 4 lenses that take into account our unintentional carbon impact as well as the tremendous opportunity we have for positively influencing user and product behaviour to more sustainable directions.

1. Your working footprint
2. Hosting and infrastructure
3. Code and design
4. Nudge and green choice architecture

Your Working Footprint
Let’s start simple! The area you might have the most direct control is with your personal and professional footprint. By looking at work and travel habits anyone can work out the environmental cost of doing UX work. Use a carbon calculator (or this ready-made spreadsheet) to measure your footprint and find reductions. I halved my own footprint down to 10 tons (which admittedly is still excessive). Once you have a handle on your own footprint, you can offset it. 10 tons of CO2 footprint costs as little as $70 a year to offset.

The individual savings scale impressively if adopted by the larger community. For example, if every member of the biggest UX group on LinkedIn (129,000 members) reduced their carbon footprint by 10 tons each year, that’s 1,290,000 tons less CO2 emitted—equivalent to taking 180,000 cars off the road.

Hosting and Infrastructure
How often do you think about the server farms and network switches that store and transmit your site to the audience? Often, out of sight means out of mind, but the equipment that hosts, transmits, and powers the internet is an energy hog, responsible for >3% of world’s electricity consumption (and rising rapidly). Most of this hosting is still fossil-fuel powered, so the footprint of the internet is about 830 million tons of CO2. This might seem surprising, until you remember that the internet has 2.4 billion users, with more on their way.

One quick fix: switch to a green web host. Here’s one suitable for a personal site. If you are influencing how a major site is hosted though, you can refer to GreenPeace’s Clicking Green report for a round-up of how the biggest players source their energy. Some, like Google, have invested heavily in renewables. Others, like Rackspace and Amazon, lag behind.

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By: James Christie

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