Embracing sustainable digital design

How do you work sustainably as a digital professional? If you are a producer of code or content then you are a producer of CO2. How do you ensure your digital activities produce as little CO2 as possible? Better still, how do you ensure that your digital work is useful enough that it saves more energy than the energy required to make and maintain it?

I first came across Norway’s Netlife around 2007. They had invited me to speak at their annual conference and when I checked up their website I was intrigued. Here was a Web consultancy that was putting people and usability first. There was no nonsense, no phony language. They were real. And from then I began one of the best partnerships of my career, working with great people on a mission to help build a Web that was useful.

The partnership continues. Netlife is on a new journey to answer the questions I’ve asked in the opening paragraph. “I want to do meaningful stuff,” Beth Stensen, CEO, states. “Refocusing from user experience to earth experience is what is going to create meaning for us.”

I thought I had reached nirvana once I discovered user experience and usability. To me that seemed like the Holy Grail of Web design. I read with excitement Steve Krug’s great book, Don’t Make Me Think. I was inspired by the thinking of Jared Spool and Jakob Nielsen. I remember watching Jostein Magnussen, one of the founders of Netlife, speak bluntly and funnily about terrible corporate design, and thinking how brave it was to say such things. I’m still inspired by the essence of UX. However, in recent years I’ve started to have doubts about how I was living and whether the work I was doing was good or bad for this planet of ours. I’m not the only one having doubts.

“I too started having doubts,” Beth explains. “Is this focus on people, this focus on the user – have we exaggerated that? I started thinking about what are the outcomes for the planet. Humans are not good for this planet and developing services for humans may not be the right path. So, how can we integrate the needs of the planet into our design thinking and think about earth experience rather than just customer and user experience? How can we change our priorities, and our clients’ priorities, in relation to what we develop and what we put out on the market?

“We’ve been working really hard to make it easier for people to consume,” Beth continues. “Now, we need to see people as something more than just users and consumers. They are humans living in the context of the earth. It’s not good for us to consume more and it’s not good for the planet. So, how can we build mechanisms into our digital solutions that make you stop and think?”

The more I think about these issues, the more I realize that getting people to think more about the right things is a key part of the solution. If we don’t think because it’s so easy to make that ecommerce purchase, if we don’t think because it’s so easy to return what we purchased on a whim, then we build a highway to global warming hell. In every design decision we make we must think about the earth experience. Does this decision contribute to or reduce global warming? How can we design for people to think more and act less, and when they do act that they will act much more deliberately and earth consciously?

Beth Stensen interview

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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