Green + Digital= How You Do It!

Part 2 of 2

In the first part of this short post series I was describing in rough terms how digital affects our environment — and how the state of digital design with green thinking looks like from my own experience.

This time I am moving to action. One of the typical reactions I get when I discuss the subject with my peers or others working in digital — is “..I would love to, but I don’t know what to do about it?”. A very understandable reaction, the subject feels so huge and people’s own role feels so small. Plus there is no general consensus that green thinking adds value, so companies can see a good reason to do it. Just think of how designers are still struggling with convincing companies to include real user validation in the process.

But here is the thing, WE are the ones actually designing and building those services. Can we really afford NOT to try? Nor do I believe that we are so small and powerless. On the contrary. I believe the potential for real impact is huge, if only we know how to start doing it. In this post I will be focusing on some key areas to work on.

Essentially there are 3 approaches to start looking at when designing for the planet.

  1. Limiting the carbon footprint of a service — designing for a low/green energy consumption
  2. Designing beyond the ‘release’ for a circular thinking, how to design products for circular consumption.
  3. Building services that help people make planet friendly choices.

In this post I will focus on the first two, since they relate to how I as a designer/builder of digital services can build in green thinking into my design process. The last area is definitely sorely needed, however it is more a question of ‘WHAT’ than ‘HOW’, but it should naturally use the green thinking when designing as well.

For the sake of understanding I have created a fictional project and go through the steps of the process to be concrete.

The case study. Let’s say I am going to be working on an app for a retail service. It is an online shop with a web site and 2 apps, where my focus is on the iOS app.

Limiting the Carbon Footprint

The first and fastest way of limiting the carbon footprint of a service is to ensure that the hosting used for it is green. One service that can help identify web hosting services for a particular site is: .

Data hosting center

For apps it is a bit more tricky. First of all you will download it from somewhere, in my example it would be from Apple’s App store. Apple uses green energy so all good there. However if your app is retrieving information from a server somewhere, then that server is typically a cloud service or locally powered with the company. You can then try to find out which cloud service it is. Or you will need to find out if the company’s power supplier is green.

A quick tool for insights into the general status of a web site, i.e. measuring how ‘green’ your site is, is Ecograder. It doesn’t cover all websites, but many. It looks at elements that in different ways burns too much energy, such as page speed, how optimised page design is, the findability and finally the hosting.

In my case the retail company is using a cloud service from Amazon to host their server on, which is not that green, although they are said to be working on it. A possible move to another provider would then have to be discussed with the IT department, so I would find out price differences and see if there could be a competitive green cloud service to use. It can be a complex world to enter because being described as ‘green’ does not mean that they really are, since there are different ways of measuring that. One place to look for information is in Greenpeace’s ClickClean report or The Green Web Foundation.

Now once that is settled the next thing to think about ties in perfectly with good design practises, such as Efficiency and Ease of use. The logic being that if there are fewer elements in the service and users quickly can do what they need to do, then there are fewer calls and elements to send back and forth between device and server = less energy spent. That also includes using lighter elements and avoiding unnecessary animations.

In the case of my retail app, it means using a few but optimized photos and certainly not using carrousels or autoplaying videos. Lazy loading is another good method to avoid more than necessary requests to the server.

Using Circular Methods

When it comes to circular designing, IDEO’s Circular Design Guide is a good place to start with a nice collection of methods. There is also a discussion group on LinkedIn which you can have a look at, which has some examples of using circular methods .

However the perspective for IDEO is on all types of design, meaning that the methods are more general than specific to digital. Of course they apply to the design of our devices, but seeing that we are focusing on the software design rather than the hardware design, we will leave hardware design out for now.

Here I will focus on the methods we as designers and developers of digital (software) products could start using in our processes. The first and perhaps most disruptive method to start using is to think beyond the release. For the most part when designing products either new/reworked, we focus on the launch and getting services out to the endusers, which is natural. Seeing beyond the next release (or even several releases) is normally not part of the equation, especially with the agile work methods which mostly focus on speed and time to market. Maybe we need to add the beyond the release thinking to the Agile toolbox?

Wikimedia Commons

An interesting place to start to think beyond the release is Joe Macleod’s ‘Closure experiences’ talk, where he focuses on the end of experiences, the importance of the end of the product — and designing actively for that. For instance there are many websites no longer being used that are still costing us resources and which have a carbon footprint, because nobody thought about taking them down from the hosting service.

In the case of my example, the retail service, one important thing to design for would be easy entry in to the service — and exit. Handling that in an energy efficient manner, so resources are not spent on customers who are no longer active, could include simple questions in the flow about how much the customer would like to be involved over time, or even thinking about if or how inactive users should be taken out of the system after a certain time. Perhaps they could simply be stored in a different way. Another case could be repair services or return services and how to think that actively into the flows, perhaps the user could choose what type of consumer they are and what type of re-usage they are interested in. Here I would recommend the Butterfly Diagram method by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. There is a nice video done by IDEO as well.

The Butterfly Diagram by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation

Another good method is what IDEO calls the Service Flip, or simply focusing on the needs of the business and then considering how to solve that in a simpler more efficient manner. In general using common sense when working with a service can get you very far, simply making good design! Maybe in the case of the retail service, it turns out that the images are displayed with a bad colour representation and therefore users are returning the products, which could be limited by updating the image database or comparing with known colours.

The other big thing I would like to highlight, is thinking of scale from the beginning. Many times the services that were initially built as a small-scale product for a small set of users, because of limited time, resources or that nobody anticipated its success, grows out of its system setup, because the need for it turned out to be greater than expected.

This has a big cost, since it can mean that the e.g. server calls or system behind it is not handling the pressure of usage in a good way, which can mean repeated calls and emergency setups using energy from non-green providers for instance and which are not efficiently using power. Not to mention the experience which users have with a slow service with errors. That could probably be prevented in many cases by working with scaling cases from the beginning and thinking about what will happen if the service is more successful than expected.

So for my retail service, perhaps there is a part of the website which is running on an old system, which should be updated to run more energy efficient.

Getting buy-in

Before you can start making changes to the product or processes, you will of course need to have a mandate to do so. For that you will need a buy-in from the right people. First of all find out who the right people are, i.e. the ones who have mandate and/or interest in the area and the service. You can do this in a simple way or by creating a stakeholder map.

The main task to do here is to make a good case with the business, clearly outlining the rewards of moving into green digital design. Mapping that in parallel with the general direction of the company and how green digital services will support the future, is for sure something that will make sense to others. I also like to go by the ‘open-door-policy’ which simply means I knock on a lot of doors to spur interest, but I focus on working with the people who are interested and ‘open the door’ to the idea. Don’t waste time on forcing open a ‘closed-door’, instead focus on ways to go around where possible. Be brave and ask questions, and try to collaborate with those who open their door to you. Some good conversation starters and tips can be found in this guide and in this article from Forbes.

In the case of the retail service, maybe the IT department is reluctant to change to another hosting service, because it is simply very expensive and time consuming and it is not part of the plan for the year. I would set up a meeting with them to try have a conversation starter about the whole topic to see where they stand. If it then turns out that there are other, smaller improvement possibilities, then we could start there.

The key thing here is to not try to sell the idea of why it is a good idea, to think of it as having to convince people. Of course you will need to have some good cases with real data — but it is more important to involve key people actively as described in the meeting with IT. Don’t TELL people what they need to do, ASK them and in most cases they will explain what their issues and needs are.

I hope that these two blogposts have inspired you to start in your own way to implement some of these simple ways of thinking and working with a greener way of creating digital products. As an explorer in this area of green digital design I hope to learn more & am keen to hear from you, if you have some good tips or feel that you have questions not answered (very likely !!).

Until next time, go out and be green!!

Part 1




Mother of 3, design person with a keen interest in sustainability and big scale systems design.

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Camilla Dahle

Camilla Dahle

Mother of 3, design person with a keen interest in sustainability and big scale systems design.

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