It’s Not Easy Being Green: Creating a Green User Experience

Posted on: November 15th, 2009 by UX Magazine

Over the past several years, because of an environmental crisis that has made headline after headline, more users (as well as product developers) are considering the relative greenness of a product when it is being evaluated. No longer just a color, green now encompasses four principles focused on making our planet healthier for all its inhabitants: ecological balance, animal rights, social justice, and sustainable economy. Our skills as user advocates provide us with an opportunity to focus on a product’s impact on our planet. We have an opportunity to define the success of a product not based solely on whether a user can quickly and easily accomplish their tasks. We can and should add “using the smallest environmental footprint” to our definition of success. And, while we are challenging the status quo, we can advocate for a socially just, animal-friendly, and sustainable product interface.

Some people might not feel comfortable discussing green issues with clients and colleagues. That’s okay. However, if you want to speak up for the planet, I have some advice for you. This article highlights key questions you can ask yourself, your colleagues, your clients, and your users at each major stage of the usability process. Answers to these nine questions will guide you in helping users have a green experience with the product.

Planning and Conducting a Usability Test

Before you look at the product user interface, start planning for a green user experience. As the usability professional, your team has a lot to do, from defining goals to recruiting participants, to preparing test materials. I’m suggesting that you add one more task: make your usability test as green as possible.

1. Do I need to be face-to-face with the users?

Ideally, we want to observe users in their natural environments. In the past, that meant inviting users to visit our usability labs where we had the equipment for observation. However, new tools for remote usability testing, such as remote moderated research, screen sharing, and audio/video recording, are making the need to have users travel to your lab less important. That’s good news for the environment. By remotely observing users at their own desk, offices, and homes, we can eliminate carbon emissions caused by travel—for users and your team.

Jess McMullin of nForm User Experience reports, “Our biggest motivation is lifestyle for our team. We don’t like living out of suitcases. We also are able to offer studies that draw on participants from a wider geographic area, which is important to national clients. The fact that we have a lower environmental impact is a bonus.”

You can use an environmental savings statement in your own publicity materials. Use one of many carbon calculators available on the Internet, for example, to make a statement such as, “Our commitment to remote usability testing kept 1,800 kilograms of greenhouse gases out of our atmosphere last year.” Keeping track of the environmental savings will help you quantify the value of remote usability testing beyond financial cost to the client.

2. What can usability tasks reveal about opportunities to be greener?

As part of the preparation for your usability test, you will likely conduct job and task analyses and learn more about the environment in which users perform these tasks. This is also a great occasion to discover opportunities to revise the product user interface that will result in a greener experience for the users. The key is to put yourself in a mindset where you are not only looking for barriers to users accomplishing their tasks, but also for instances of waste.

You might notice that users frequently print the online help. This wastes paper and suggests that the product or user interface could be redesigned to encourage online-only use. Maybe you discover that some parts of the print materials are rarely, if ever, used, making a good case to move this information online and reduce paper consumption. Or, you might observe users writing a lot of information on their own paper that might be more efficiently displayed in the user interface. You might also discover the documents that are quickly disposed of and recommend they be made of lighter-weight materials.

3. What can I reduce, reuse, and recycle for the test?

Without sacrificing the quality of your test results, make it a game to see how much waste you can remove from your own usability tests. Determine the exact number of copies of test materials you will need. If appropriate, go paperless with some or all of the test materials. Look for opportunities to reuse test materials from participant to participant. Keep a library of materials that could be reused from test to test.

Testing can take a lot of resources, paper and otherwise. Cut any waste you discover. For example, do you perform a lot of paper prototyping? If possible, use both sides of the paper, sketch on the back of used paper, and then recycle. The closer you look at your practices, the more opportunities you will likely see for cutting waste, reducing costs, and improving efficiency.

After conducting a usability test, you now have data your client is likely to be very interested in and an occasion to talk to the client about the product interface. Don’t blow it. You aren’t lecturing clients about their personal lifestyle choices. Rather, you are trying to create healthier user experiences—environmentally, socially, and economically. With a little planning, you can use this opportunity to talk about recommendations for improving the usability of the user interface, but also to persuade your audience to follow your recommendations for a greener product interface.

4. What type of evidence does my audience value?

Just as your job and task analyses are critical to your usability findings, your understanding of the rhetorical situation—audience, purpose, and context—for your test results and recommendations are key to the success of your communications. The rhetorical situation, for example, will help you decide how quickly you need to share the results, who needs the data, how to present your findings (for example, written, orally, visually), and what depth of discussion is required. How successful you are at persuading your audience to accept your recommendations depends upon your audience analysis and the rhetorical strategies you use in your communications.

To influence a person to change his or her beliefs and behavior, you need to figure out what type of appeals he/she values. Sometimes the person’s job title or role in the company can provide a hint. A decision-maker or a financial officer, for example, might value quantitative data. Maybe your audience would be best persuaded by a video highlight tape. Another reader might be swayed by your expert testimony. Table 1 lists several rhetorical strategies and explains why each might be persuasive to your readers.

5. What can I recommend that will result in a greener product interface?

Your test results and your understanding of the users and tasks will likely help you identify opportunities to make the product interface greener. The most common opportunity is the decision on whether user information should be available electronically, in print, or some combination of both. If it meets user needs, well-designed electronic information is more eco-friendly (and often more cost effective) than printed information.

If having printed information makes sense given the users and tasks, you can still offer some environmentally friendly recommendations. You can recommend tree-free papers, recycled content paper, chlorine-free paper, and paper from well-managed forests. You can also recommend vegetable-based inks (like soy inks) instead of petroleum-based. Finally, you can suggest design features that will result in a greener printed product (see Table 2).

6. Where are opportunities for me to change attitudes and processes?

Some of your clients might never have considered the green aspects of the user experience. Some might be so focused on the development of the product that they’ve lost sight of the larger picture: healthier lives. By raising green issues as they relate to the user experience, you can introduce these issues into the process of design. As web usability guru Jakob Nielsen explains in an interview by Gerry Gaffney, “If you can make something easier, more people will do so. So if you have a desire for people to behave in a certain way, make it easier and more people will do it.” (Full transcript at http://www.infodesign.com.au/uxpod/jakobnielsen).

Sometimes, the best opportunity to change a client’s attitude and design process is to question whether a company truly knows what the user needs. As Daniel Szuc, principal usability consultant for Apogee Usability Asia Ltd, cautions, “This is an important juncture for everybody on the planet. We are continuing to make products that people don’t need. We are also not doing a great job of understanding what people’s needs are in the first place because we don’t ask, or we don’t make them part of our design process. This does not help us become more sustainable, and this is really the time we need to start thinking about what and how we build new stuff.” (http://useful-usability.blogspot.com/2009/05/interview-with-daniel-szuc.html). The green movement, with its focus on sustainability and corporate responsibility, gives you another angle from which to argue the importance of letting the users’ needs drive design decisions.

Leading by Example

While you are advising other companies how to create a greener user experience, remember to periodically take a critical look at your own company. Avoid sending mixed messages like “Being green should matter to you but not to me or my company.” It’s like a person eating a hamburger and talking about the rights of animals—admirable, but not very credible. You need to walk your own path toward a healthier planet and that often means being the first on the path and breaking trail for others who follow.

7. How can I work like a green heroine or hero?

Take a look around your immediate workspace, right now. Look for opportunities to go green. Make a list of three actions you can take. Maybe, it’s making space for a box to recycle and reuse paper, or committing to edit documents online, or turning your computer off when you stop for the day, or bringing a reusable container for your daily beverage. After twenty-one days (about how long it takes to develop a new habit), make a list of three more actions. Also, keep a running list of green recommendations you make to your clients and check to see if you follow them yourself.

Educate and involve your colleagues. For example, introduce vegan recipes by sponsoring Meat Out Mondays (www.meatoutmondays.org) at lunch. Spend twenty minutes watching “The Story of Stuff” (www.storyofstuff.com) at your next staff-development session. Ask them to learn about fair trade by visiting Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/fairtrade/).

8. What can my company do to be more green?

You don’t need to quit your job and go work for a renewable energy company or ForestEthics. You can help you own company seek profits by doing the right thing. Some actions are obvious: company-wide recycling programs, switching to less toxic cleaning supplies, and offering socially responsible investment options (see, for example, www.socialinvest.org/resources/sriguide and www.eurosif.org). Some actions require an initial investment for a later return: upgrading to energy-efficient appliances and lighting, buying recycled content office supplies, and installing occupancy sensors and smart thermostats. Encourage your company to publish a social responsibility report, or CSR. (To read examples, search the Internet using keywords “social responsibility report”.) If your company has nothing to discuss in its CSR, use this fact as a wake-up call for decision makers and stakeholders.

Some actions, however, challenge the core beliefs of an organization. For example, does your company do business with companies that build equipment for processing animals into packaged meat? What about companies such as junk mailers that contribute to deforestation? Companies that manufacture toxic chemicals and pesticides? A company known to exploit workers? It’s not so easy being green, but you should start having these conversations at your company. Help your company be a place where people don’t work for the paycheck but because they believe in what the company does.

9. How can my company make a difference in the local community?

Think globally; act locally. By being involved in their community, employees are often motivated by a feeling of personal responsibility to their neighbors. Mark Bowen, CH2M Hill Boise Office Manager, explains, “Participating in [pollution prevention] is a reflection of [our office’s] core values, and is a key part of the way we deliver services to clients. Our employees are proud to take an active role in our community and our environment.”

Each time your company makes a positive contribution in the community it builds and strengthens the community’s social fabric. Australian information provider Sensis, for example, maintains a web page outlining its diverse commitments to the environment and community (http://about.sensis.com.au/community/index.php). Healthwise, a consumer health content developer in Idaho, started Healthwise Communities Project (www.healthwise.org/a_communities.aspx) to empower Idahoans to make informed healthcare decisions. After three years, the program saved residents an estimated $7.5 – 21.5 million in unnecessary health costs.

Small steps matter. Repeat this phrase each time you wonder “Is this worth it?” You (and your company) can’t change to the deepest shade of green overnight. Finding solutions to make our planet healthier takes patience and persistence. Small steps matter.

Conclusion

Each of these questions focuses on what you can do. Each one of us has the responsibility and the privilege to strive to create a healthier planet, one user at a time. By asking the right questions, you can lessen a product’s impact on the Earth. From planning usability tests to recommending green changes to the product and process, usability professionals can make both large and small choices that will help users have a green user experience. When that happens, your users, your business, your clients, your local community, and the Earth all benefit.