Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird via Unsplash
We need to stop lying to ourselves. Designing a piece of software and not considering the impact this has on our Earth’s biosphere is like speeding down a highway blindfolded.
Sure, we can blame the blindfold for the disastrous crash we have caused. But it won’t undo the crash.
Our planet is heading towards reaching several tipping points that will cause long-term irreversible changes. And a recently released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change leaves no doubt that humans are to blame.
In other words, the Earth’s climate is changing due to to the impact of humans on the world rather than through change prompted by nature. We have entered a new geological era called the Anthropocene.
The extreme events that our generation faces, such as wildfires, floods and Covid-19, are all symptoms of this change. And they are all connected.
As David Attenborough stated in a recent Netflix documentary, the wildfires and Covid-19 are a “wake-up call” and infectious diseases that come from animals are a sign of an “unhealthy planet”.
Source: “9 Staggering Facts From David Attenborough’s New Devastating Documentary on Climate Change” via globalcitizen.org / Photo courtesy of Netflix
Digital consumption is causing pollution
What does this all have to do with UX design?, you might ask.
It’s true, when we think of carbon emissions, our mind likely jumps to things like air travel, pollution from road traffic, and objects that are made of plastic.
We don’t think of digital consumption.
But as SalesForce asked on Twitter recently, which of the following things have an impact on the environment?
🚙 Your commute to work. 📧 Sending emails. 🚮 What you put into the landfill. 😹 Watching funny cat videos.
To quote SalesForce, “Believe it or not, but *all* of these things have an impact on the environment.”
The more digital applications people use in their daily lives, the more they contribute to environmental pollution.
As UX designers, we therefore need to critically ask ourselves: Are we driving digital consumerism through the applications we design, which in turn is accelerating climate change?
Estimates are that digital consumption accounts for 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions. 60% of this goes into streaming videos.
Aviation in comparison only accounts for 2.4%. And these figures are from before the pandemic.
Source: “Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think” via bbc.com
Digital is physical
As Gerry McGovern, author of the book World Wide Waste reminds us, the digital world operates on a complex array of physical infrastructure. The environmental impact of this infrastructure is very real.
“Digital is physical. Digital is not green. Digital costs the Earth. Every time I download an email I contribute to global warming. Every time I tweet, do a search, check a webpage, I create pollution.” — Gerry McGovern
Yes, even simple acts like sending emails add up and contribute carbon emissions.
A study found that if every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year — the equivalent to taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road.
Here is a reframed question for UX designers: Rather than making it easier to send emails — can we encourage users to send fewer emails?
What UX designers can do
As others have argued, we need to move beyond human-centredness in design. It is time for a new paradigm that prompts us to consider the impact of our design decisions on the environment.
Whether we call this life-centred design, environment-centred design or more-than-human participation, what is important is to start considering living systems when we make design decisions.
This is, of course, more obvious in fields like industrial design or architecture. When we design digital applications, the link between our design decisions and how they affect the natural environment can be difficult to see.
Photo by Jasmin Sessler via Unsplash
This is exactly why we, as the UX community, need to start developing an awareness of these issues. As the architects of digital experiences, it is up to us to drive this change.
Advocate for living systems. In a similar way to how UX designers became the advocates for users 20 to 30 years ago, making sure their needs and concerns are considered at every step of a design process, we need to become advocates for living systems.
Include the perspectives of non-human stakeholders. We need to augment our practice and go beyond just considering users and other human stakeholders. We need to adopt tools like non-human personas that allow us to include the perspectives of living systems as equally important stakeholders.
Understand the ripple effects. It’s time to take off the blindfold that stops us from seeing the impact our UX designs have on the environment. That’s the first step towards creating positive change.
Or, rather than thinking about this as a blindfold, let’s reframe this as a superpower: The ability to see the indirect and big picture ripple effects caused by our design decisions.
I spoke about this topic last week at the UX Australia conference, which was held remotely due to the current Covid-19 lockdown in Sydney. In the talk, I also introduced tools for considering living beings and ecosystems in UX design and demonstrated how this can be achieved through examples. I will write more about these aspects in the coming weeks.
The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article we publish. This story contributed to World-Class Designer School: a college-level, tuition-free design school focused on preparing young and talented African designers for the local and international digital product market. Build the design community you believe in.