How good UX can reduce the environmental impact of digital services

November 26, 2020

Ladies that UX

Talk synposis

Did you know that the internet is thought to produce about the same carbon emissions as the aviation industry’s fuel consumption? And if the internet was a country it would be the sixth biggest polluter in the world. Shocking isn’t?

Digital technology provides wonderful opportunities to create better experiences for users, but in itself has a significant environmental cost, which most of us aren’t conscious of.

In this talk we’ll discuss why & how digital technologies have an environmental impact and how good UX design can lessen that impact.

 

Questions and discussion

We had a good range of questions and discussion after the meet-up. Here are some of the ones that really stick in my mind.

How can we convince our clients to take action?

This is a really good question and my answer is very inspired by a recent online event I attended by the Sustainable Tech Business Acceleration Hub in Bath. Here’s a link to the slides and video from that event.

In summary I think it’s really hard to get any business to prioritise the environment over their bottom line: staying in business. It makes me sad to say that, but we can’t afford the time to be idealist, we need to be pragmatic. So my advice is two-fold:

  • Focus on the co-benefits that making changes to the environment deliver: reduced cost, speedier loading, better user experience etc.
  • Keep it positive – you’re far less likely to create sustainable change if you make people feel guilty and bad about what they are or aren’t doing. Make them feel positively awesome about any changes they make.

 

Given how much more time people are spending online during the pandemic, does that worry you with regards to the environmental impact?

From the outset of the talk I said that I’m not here to bash digital or say we shouldn’t use it, or that it is a bad thing for society. I love digital and all the opportunities it brings to different types of people.

And during the pandemic, digital has been an absolute lifeline for many to the outside world. So yes, of course we will see the emissions from digital rising during this time. But that is more than offset by the reduction in travel that we’ve seen, which had a far greater impact of the environment and on human health. So in itself I don’t think that the greater use of digital services is a bad thing.

HOWEVER, what does bother me is the way that digital is taken for granted. The value and impact of creating it and using it is not clearly understood. We’re seeing a lot more wasteful use of digital that creates pollution for no good reason. Well the only reason is that people don’t realise the impact they are having – it’s so hidden away and hard to calculate. For example someone listening to YouTube instead of watching it. So they are playing a video with visuals and audio, when they just want the audio. A recent program by Channel 4 dispatches estimated that you can save 90% of the electricity by just listening to the audio on a service like SoundCloud or Spotify. That kind of stuff does worry me and I think there is a lot of work to do to raise awareness.

 

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