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Sustainability is Interactive

Often, when I speak with interaction designers and usability professionals, I hear the same question, “I work on websites and interfaces. What impact can I have on sustainability?”

While I understand that sustainability is often cast in terms of environmental issues, its true meaning goes beyond just these concerns. Sustainability refers to sustainable social, cultural, and financial systems, and not just environmental systems. None of these systems is more important than the others and, as such, we need to consider how the things we make and use affect them.

The world of interaction and interfaces may not, at first glance, make as much impact on materials and energy as, say, automobiles, mobile phones, or housing, but from a systems perspective, interfaces and interactive design touch everything.

As a usability professional, the things you work on, even a website, still must be used through some physical device. The problem is that we too often forget this in our research, ideation, and evaluation.

So, what kind of impact can we have? Plenty—and here’s how:

The first thing we can do is to make sure that the things we help create are usable, useful, and desirable. These criteria are almost fully within our control. For sure, we’re not the only ones responsible, but this is our profession and we pride ourselves on it. The more usable something is, the less likely it will be discarded for something else simply because it doesn’t work correctly. That prevents another device from being built to take its place simply because someone couldn’t make it work the way they needed it. That has an enormous impact on material and energy use.

In addition, the more usable something is, the longer it will meet people’s needs—especially if it’s designed to be expanded, customized, or upgraded to extend its lifetime. Designing products to last longer is another way to prevent unnecessary duplication of devices and saves material and energy (not to mention waste). Remember, 50-80 percent of the material and energy impact of many physical products occurs during manufacturing and distribution, and is already spent by the time we buy and use it.

Interaction design also has an impact on the ability to refocus the value of products into services. There was a time when physical objects were bought to hear music or watch video. Digital content still uses energy, but they use far less than the total cost associated with producing and distributing records, tapes, and CDs. We won’t be able to digitize all content or every device, but there was a time when we didn’t envision records, tapes, or books being digital either. Future technology will continue to surprise us.

Turning products into services is a process of researching and reimagining the value customers ultimately need. (We don’t actually need drills, for instance, we need holes where and when we want them). The process for doing this well relies on discovering real needs and value, and service design to deliver that value in meaningful, sustainable, and viable ways. Most services still need physical products or artifacts in their service flows (you can’t have a car rental or car share service without cars), but these products are often used more efficiently, maintained better, last longer, and require fewer units to render the same service than if everyone owned their own.

Design and user research can have even more impact than merely reducing the amount of energy and materials required to do something. The techniques of ethnographic research are required to understand customer requirements at the more esoteric, but more powerful levels, such as emotions, values, and meaning. Quantitative methods, like those long used in traditional market research are terrible at identifying, understanding, and communicating these. Yet, these are the basis for the more powerful relationships between people and between people and the objects in their lives. This, then, is the key to reshaping what we build and not merely how we build it. It can identify better offerings (whether product, service, event, or experience) and satisfy our customers (or users or participants or audience) in ways far more powerful than mere price and performance. This may even be the path toward a more sustainable, post-consumer future since (and this is merely conjecture based on my own anecdotal evidence) people who have more meaning in their lives don’t need to constantly buy things to fill the void of having little. We now have models and processes for doing just this, but this is just the start.

Usability and interaction professionals have developed unique skills to understand social and cultural impacts (or we employ those who do, like anthropologists and ethnographers). These understandings can help us build solutions that better honor all people’s needs (accessibility, for example is already a great start toward this), and even identify when we’re working on projects or for clients who aren’t treating these needs sustainably. This means that we may find hard choices when we look through the sustainability lens. Sustainability is a vision for meeting today’s needs without compromising our ability to meet those of tomorrow, but it’s not easy to see across both distances and we will, undoubtedly, make trade-offs and even mistakes along the way.

Many of us already make choices about which projects to take, but we may find ourselves questioning the motives of our clients and their projects in new terms as well. Consider the software “games” Hewlett-Packard experimented with just a few years ago, the purpose of which was to persuade users to print more paper. At the same time that some groups within the company were devising revolutionary take-back programs to recycle ink, cartridges, and equipment, others in the same company were devising ways to get people to waste ink and paper. Would you have worked on that project if cast in this light?

Undoubtedly, there will be more choices we uncover as we use this lens on our personal and professional lives, but it’s a perspective sorely needed and, ultimately, richly rewarding. Where we can affect use and usability, we can choose to improve both. Where we affect desirability, we can choose which products are worthy of our time and skills. Where we interface with peers who make the physical device decisions that our interfaces interact through (and the “hard” and “soft” interfaces have never been more tightly intertwined), we can advocate for sustainability in all its meanings.