Product Design
November 18, 2022

Including Sustainability in the Digital Product Ecosystem

While I was in a session with one of my mentors some time ago, we did an exercise called Ikigai, where I was trying to align my vocation, profession, passion, and mission to identify a sense of purpose or meaning. 

Sustainability has always been an interest of mine, but I hadn’t thought that I could incorporate that interest into my career until that moment. At that point, I only had one question: What does sustainability in digital products mean?

It is relatively straightforward to understand how raw materials and production conditions impact the environment for physical products. But what about applications or websites? 

As I scoured the web for a green-to-go checklist, I realized that the sustainability trend was here to stay, not just a fad. In many markets, environmental and social concerns are becoming increasingly important to customers. 

As a result, considering sustainability in digital products is not just possible; it's the future. How can we get there? Is there anything we can do as Product Designers? Absolutely! 

This article will give examples from companies already on the bandwagon and tips to help you get there.

Offset the carbon footprint by having a low-impact site

We can think of website energy consumption as the amount of downloaded data. Therefore by minimizing this data, we can inherently reduce our carbon footprint. 

There is a considerable environmental impact associated with the digital world, our personal and work gadgets, and our online habits. 

The most important thing that designers can influence is the reduction of materials and energy used in products and services. There are some eco-friendly approaches we need to consider to have a low-impact carbon footprint:

- Limits the use of custom fonts:

It may surprise you that even a simple custom font can exceed 200KB. In this way, the weight of a page can be significantly increased by using more than one font style, and the product's performance will suffer as a result.

- Limit the amount of light emitted by the screen:

Compared to lighter colors, darker ones consume less energy, and black has the lowest energy consumption. Thus, dark mode increases battery life and reduces carbon emissions by reducing the work required by individual pixels. Designers can use this information to prioritize energy-efficient colors in their palettes while keeping accessibility in mind.

- Limit the time people spend tapping around in the app:

In energy savings, the fewer steps needed to use a product or service, the more energy is saved, and a better user experience is guaranteed. By making it easy for users to follow the journey, we will reduce wasted energy by tapping around.

- Make all assets as compressed as possible:

Compressing files is sometimes an overlooked practice, but it's a critical step in ensuring faster loading of images, video content, animations, and audio files. Images represent the most significant portion of the site's footprint in most cases. So, is it possible to use fewer images? 

A second problem with web images is that many are saved in the wrong format, are sized incorrectly, or need to be better optimized. 

- Video and animation should be used when they provide users with genuine value:

We see designers push for current trends to stay competitive and capture users' attention. For example, motion graphics is an emerging trend in everyday interactions or the ubiquitous rotating carousels. 

A significant disadvantage of video, audio, and multimedia content is that they consume enormous electricity and bandwidth. In addition, they can increase load time, which can negatively impact the user experience. 

- Store data locally on the user's device to minimize data transfer:

Reusing and sharing data throughout your service saves energy and time searching for relevant information. For the service provider, it reduces technical loads on repetitive data requests and eliminates the need to collect and store duplicated data.

- Use tools to measure the carbon footprint of a product:

There are great tools that can help you review the carbon footprint of your products and give you information about what measures can be taken to improve them. Some of these tools are and

Make Design decisions that influence human behavior

Decision-making and human behavior are studied in the behavioral science field and help us determine what to do when we encounter problems or scenarios and how much motivation is needed to change the behavior of the users. 

Our goal is to help users diverge from the not sustainable and traditional decision-making patterns by implementing nudges and other motivators that positively impact their behavior and guide them to a sustainable path.

It's encouraging to see so many pioneers championing the need for sustainable digital design despite the constraints this implies. These examples can inspire us and even provide proof of concept when persuading clients to join the sustainability wave. 

Let's look at some examples.

- Kayak helping conscious decisions of environmental impact from flights:

KAYAK introduces the CO2 filter to help users make conscious decisions when flying - allowing you to sort flight results based on their environmental impact.

Kayak flights
Source - Kayak

- Ecosia planting trees while you search the web:

Ecosia is a Chrome extension that plants trees when customers search online. The company uses search ads to generate income to fund tree plantings in 35+ countries with local organizations.

Ecosia search
Source - Ecosia

- Uber eats promotes less waste of disposable items:

By asking customers to specifically request disposable, single-use items such as straws, napkins, and utensils when ordering from a restaurant on Uber Eats, they promote less waste.

Uber Eats 'Ask for what you want'
Source - Uber Eats

- Google showing eco-friendly routes:

The company launched a feature for car owners to choose their vehicle's engine type to get personalized suggestions for fuel-efficient routes to use the least amount of gas possible.

Google eco-friendly routes
Source - Google

- Amazon allowing reviews by durability for products:

In order to help users make informed and conscious decisions, Amazon introduced categories such as durability or sturdiness, which are reviewed by real users.

Amazon reviews by durability for products
Source - Amazon

What to take away

Product Designers are uniquely positioned to contribute to building the digital world. In this age where sustainability is more important than ever, we need to take it further and help raise awareness and encourage more eco-friendly approaches. 

There isn't a one-size-fits-all formula for designing and creating sustainable products. Our biggest challenge is creating a unique approach for each product by taking on challenges across a wide range of sustainable issues while delivering financially attractive solutions.

As the first step, we can introduce sustainability in product discussions by making conscious and informed considerations about sustainable issues.

This article will hopefully spark conversations about the importance of sustainability in digital products and prompt you to reflect on your role in shaping tomorrow's sustainable future.