What is SustainableUX, anyway?
"We're here to help you fight climate change"
Someone asked me the other day what SustainableUX is about. I ummed and errred but eventually came out with something like “SustainableUX is exists to enlist the people who design and build digital services in the fight against climate change.”
Also, “It’s a newsletter (and sometimes a conference)”.
I started SustainableUX because I wanted to do something to apply my UX skills to climate change but couldn’t see how. I guessed that there were other people who felt similarly. And here you are, reading this (thanks, by the way).
Who’s it for?
Anyone working on digital product: owners, product managers, coders, content strategists, UX researchers and designers.
Aside: shouldn’t it be called “Sustainable Product” though?
UX is dead (no, it isn’t). But the name is staying the same for now: rebranding is hard work.
What topics does SustainableUX cover?
We’ll consider any topic as long as it a) is relevant to people working on digital products & services and b) that it is environmentally relevant.
Some aspects are maybe obvious: how we work, how design decisions have energy-use implications, and what our products do. Others are more abstract - like understanding attitudes and behaviors around climate issues, or how we find purpose in our work. We take a broad view because we recognize that all roles are different and not all methods will apply to what you do or your company.
Past topics broadly fall into these buckets:
Digital design, and it’s impact on the climate
How we work, finding purpose
Infrastructure & technology: why is the internet so polluting anyway?
Behavior change; attitudes and beliefs
I’ve broken in down below, and mixed in some links to talks given at previous SustainableUX conferences.
pillars planes buckets of SustainableUX
How we work
Climate care starts in the home (office). This was mostly to do with encouraging people to travel less and embrace remote work techniques. And while business travel is still substantially down from pre-Covid heights, it’s making a comeback. So we need to keep promoting best practices for remote UX work.
There is still much to be done to make remote work awesome - we have better collaboration and workshop tools now, but we have a lot to learn about how to use them effectively.
Relevant sustainableUX talks: Long Distance Relationships that Work (Jim Kalbach); How technologists can fight climate change (Andrew McWilliams).
Where we work, and making our workplace greener
If you aren't in Clean tech or a climate job, how do you still make an impact? Sub-topics: selling green topics to product teams, unionization, B-corps, corporate social responsibility.
Relevant talks: Designers Oath; Change Agents; The Sustainable Agency
Content strategy / content design
The amount and types of content we use on our products impacts data-use. Video vastly outweighs photos, photos outweigh illustrations, graphics of most kinds outweigh text. Data-heavy experiences have a larger carbon footprint (see Technology, below). So, our content decisions have a real-world environmental impact.
Interaction and UI
No controversy here: good interaction & UI designs should be efficient and usable and useful. The classic example is the image carousel: it isn’t light-weight and it isn’t usable or useful. Cutting the carousel speeds up the site and forces better focus in your design. There are many other examples where a design decision can benefit the user, the business and the environment at the same time.
Finding features or options in your product that have a positive environmental impact.
Two examples from consumer apps:
Reduce harm: a food delivery app that gives the option of refusing the cutlery.
Positive impact: adding an option to trade-in and resell your used goods.
Talks: Ends (Jim Macleod); Product Design for Sustainability (Artiom Dashinsky)
Hearts & Minds 💚🧠
User psychology, behavior change
Those aspects of behavior change design that we can leverage most effectively to encourage greener behavior.
We think in “footprints & handprints” - the footprint is the harm, the handprint is the deliberate positive impact that your service creates.
See: Driving Green Behavior Thru Apps; Product Design for Sustainability; Digital, meet physical
Attitudes and beliefs
Beyond the tactics of behavior change, this topic concerns itself with understanding and influencing beliefs and attitudes to climate change. This is important as there is still a large minority of people who are skeptical about the reality of climate change and the solutions to climate change. One way to reach those people is to frame the problem as “extreme weather” or as “energy security”.
A hugely helpful resource here is the Yale Climate Communication project; hopefully similar resources exist for countries other than the US (send them my way!).
Talks: Meta-Sustainable-UX: Designing Compelling Arguments for Low-Carbon Design;
Even if you never touch a line of code, it’s important to understand the hardware that runs the internet at some level. Stretching a metaphor: I don’t know anything about engines, but I know I want an electric or hybrid car or bicycle or bus.
Hardware & infrastructure; the coal-powered internet
The internet is the biggest machine. It has x billion users. It is mostly still powered by fossil fuels.
We want a 100% renewably-powered internet, but that is a long way off. In the meantime, thinking about data & energy efficiency is key to reducing the carbon footprint of digital.
Talks: Greener Clouds; Skeletons in our e-closets;
Code + web performance
Even if your hosting is green, managing data efficiency is still important. Because once the bits&bytes leave your server, they pass thought a kaleidoscope of other internet infrastructure on their way to your user’s eyeballs.
This plane is concerned with understanding the fundamentals of web performance and how to think about data budgets. Fortunately, this area is one of the easiest to sell to clients & colleagues as good web performance = happier customers and moves the metrics in all the right directions.
Two of the challenges include:
ad-supported sites use a ton of 3rd party scripts and other cruft that slows down your site, but changing your business model is a lot harder than optimising some jpgs.
“modern” web dev practices such as no-code and various js-frameworks can also add a lot of data overhead compared to an html-first approach.
Not all our past talks and blog posts fall into the buckets above. Check out the full listing of SustainableUX talks - we’ve hosted speakers on biomimicry, VR, p2p, and love.
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The above is a snapshot of what SustainableUX is and was; where it goes next is a bit of mystery. This newsletter has been a modest success, enough so that I’m going to keep writing it.
What I cover is somewhat up to you, dear reader. Write in and tell me what you’d like to hear more about.