Green UX: Is your UI harming the environment?
It’s time to go green with UX design. We’re looking at how designers can curb their carbon footprint by optimizing their interfaces and user experience
As global temperatures continue to rise, climate change forecasts are grim. And as we become more informed about the damaging effects of human-induced global warming, we need to up our game in the fight against it.
Cutting down on air travel, thinking before we print and turning the lights off when we leave the room are a few simple ways we can all help to reduce global carbon emissions. But we can always do more – and that goes for UI/UX designers too.
The goal is simple: use less carbon dioxide. Have you ever thought about the amount of greenhouse gas and fossil fuel emissions that digital media contributes? Think about it this way… if the internet was a country, it would rank 6th for electricity usage. In fact, the energy footprint of the IT sector is already estimated to consume approximately 7% of global electricity, according to Greenpeace. And with the internet connecting so many people and objects now, it’s no wonder.
So designers, it’s time to say adios to dirty energy. Our post takes a look at how the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, and specifically digital interfaces, can be harmful to the environment. We’ll then offer some insight into how UX designers can curb their carbon footprint through sustainable interface design and green UX.
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3 ways our devices and interfaces are harming the environment
Digital media and e-waste
Our smartphones are harming the planet. The digital sphere now includes billions of devices used by users every single day, each with a hungry appetite for energy.
Here are a few key aspects of our smartphone culture that makes the devices so environmentally unfriendly:
For starters, smartphones are energy-heavy to produce. As Mark Wilson points out, building a new smartphone represents anywhere between 85 and 95% of the phone’s total C02 emissions for two whole years. In his book “Door to Door”, Edward Humes picks apart the 500,000 mile journey the iPhone takes to get to customers – including the two dozen primary part suppliers across three continents and the 12,000 miles required to get the phone to where it’s assembled. Ouch!
To make matters worse, smartphones are getting bigger, and bigger phones have a measurably worse carbon footprint than smaller-screened devices. The major reason behind this is the mining of rare minerals, such as aluminium, gold and cobalt – not to mention the copious amounts of plastic derived from crude oil – needed to manufacture these larger devices.
Whilst your individual phone only contains small amounts of these materials, the several billion of them being manufactured and used globally are causing significant damage to our planet. In her talk “Dirty Digital Humanities: from iPhones to e-waste” Amanda Sterling reminds us that the techno sphere includes an “unruly amount of toxic pollution, wasted clean water and ecological destruction”, largely attributed to cellphone production and usage.
Additionally, smartphones are disposable. According to this poll taken back in February, almost 50% of poll takers admitted to replacing their current smartphone with a new model every two years, with 20% of poll takers upgrading each year.
Fossbytes reports that buying a new smartphone uses as much energy as it does to recharge and operate a smartphone for an entire decade, whereas sticking to the same smartphone for three years instead of two could make a sizable difference to your carbon footprint.
And we haven’t even mentioned mobile phone usage! As Apple’s Senior VP Phil Schiller points out, every text, download and email requires energy from a power-hungry server in a data center. These data centers are estimated to have the fastest growing carbon footprint across the whole ICT sector. Yikes.
Wasteful digital storage and the dark side of the cloud
“The internet is the biggest thing ever built. It’s used by 4Bn people every day. And it’s mostly powered by coal.” James Christie at Sustainable UX
Technology has proven to be an efficient way to make our daily tasks more accessible, by eliminating the physical limitations, such as paper to e-receipts and printing to photo-sharing in the cloud, as Amanda Sopkin points out in her “Skeletons in our E-Closets” talk.
It’s true, we have made leaps in energy efficiency. But whilst these minimalist solutions may seem much more sustainable, the e-space we leverage to save on energy often has a reverse effect.
Are we losing sight of our original goal?
Face it, our data is dirty. Amanda Sopkin’s talk reminds us of the 300 hours of YouTube content, 510,000 Facebook comments, and 350,000 tweets that we generate every minute. Back in 2010, Twitter developer Raffi Krikorian estimated that every single tweet generates .02 grams of carbon dioxide, which becomes 7,000 grams in a single minute, 420,000 grams in an hour and 10,080,000 grams in a day. That’s 11 U.S. tons in one day! That’s the kind of energy consumption we don’t see.
The digital cloud requires thousands upon thousands of computer servers, each storing the data that makes up the Internet. These servers are powered by electricity, fueled by coal and fossil fuels. According to Amanda Sterling, the cloud alone uses more energy than most countries. Essentially, every file we store in Dropbox and every song we add to our Spotify playlist contributes to our own carbon footprint.
Amanda Sopkin’s talk provides some practical ways we can each make a difference, including organizing our digital content better.
Energy expenditure and the Internet of Things
The Internet of Things plays its own part in energy consumption. Why? Because wireless technology consumes more energy than wired connections.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Internet of Things (IoT), it’s an ever-expanding ecosystem of physical devices, vehicles and home appliances embedded with electronics and software that enable them to connect to each other and exchange data.
The trouble with IoT lies in those connections. As telecommunications expert Kerry Hinton tells us, the energy efficiency of IoT devices can vary greatly. At one end of the spectrum, low-power, low-data devices such as vending machine sensors have long-lasting batteries that do most of the work, with help from sunlight and heat. However, more complex, energy-guzzling devices that require mains power to function and connect to other devices will contribute significantly to data usage.
Take Alexa, for example. When you ask her to set the temperature, you set into motion a chain of reactions from one data center to another. Each reaction requires an energy expenditure beyond “what shows up on our own bills for electricity and mobile data”, according to Mozilla’s Internet Health Report 2018.
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3 ways sustainable UX can help you reduce your carbon footprint
For users, keeping carbon footprints to a minimum can be tough. With technology connecting everyone and making daily tasks more efficient, slowing the pace may seem counter-intuitive. That’s why it’s up to designers to encourage users to pivot towards sustainable device usage. How? By ensuring that our user experience is as green as possible.
The good news is there are plenty of ways to become more energy conscious when designing interfaces. Take a look at our suggestions:
Make your UX accessible
The best way to influence efficient user behavior is by making your interface and your UX more accessible. This means making content readable and navigation usable. The easier your content is to find, the fewer pages the user has to load to get from Point A to Point B.
There are a few ways you can optimize your user experience. For starters, use color and contrast to guide users towards important landmarks on your site or app. The right color can strengthen call-to-actions and stimulate intuitive interactions.
Additionally, consider how you present important content to the user. Clean and clear visual hierarchy can help you create coherency between UI elements on-screen, and help your users find their way around more efficiently.
Design for performance optimization
Performance is one of the biggest issues designers face today. Page weight and speed massively affect the user experience, and your brand’s bottom line. But, by championing web performance optimization, you not only help users to use less data, you ensure that users remain engaged and satisfied.
As Sustainable UX reminds us, sustainable design means more than simply moving to a renewable-powered webserver: “Sending a byte over the internet uses energy every step of the way, so the best thing to do is reduce the amount of data your design uses. That means following good Web Performance Optimization practices to keep data-use low.”
Yes, we’re talking photo and video optimization. Users need to be able to get at content instantaneously and load pages quickly. By reducing the processing power of your site, users will use less data and energy to load each page – plus you’ll reduce page loading time.
There are plenty of ways to optimize your visuals, which don’t require you to leave out prize content. Compressing images and gifs is a great way to save on space, and most design tools have built-in image compression algorithms. Additionally, using vectors allows you to scale images to any size without losing quality.
Mobile-first design has great potential for improving sustainability online. When you design from small-screens up, you re-focus your design process around what works with less real estate. As Luke Wroblewski advises, mobile-first forces you to prioritize the most important data and actions and then work your way up from there.
Additionally, as Sustainable Web Design points out, mobile-first web design encourages users to avoid loading large assets designed for desktop.
Sustainability and clean energy should be a priority for everyone. As for UI designers, we have just as much of a duty to do right by our planet. And now that you’ve read our post, there’s no excuse. Now’s the time to go green with your UX design. Go, go, go!