Sustainable User Experience

Felix Heibeck
Aug 20, 2019 · 8 min read

Designing for responsible innovation that engages consumers as participants in sustainable practices.

Consumers might be the most underutilized resource in current developments for responsible production and consumption. Leading companies are working hard to mitigate environmental costs by employing sustainable practices — or try to offset them by planting trees and buying CO2 certificates. In contrast, while most consumers want to act more sustainably, their role is limited to choosing the right products and throwing things into the right bin. When designing sustainable solutions, we need to create experiences that engage users as active participants in sustainability practices. The social effects of enabling individuals to contribute can create a positive compound effect that raises awareness for sustainability and empowers people in dealing with environmental issues. It’s also good business as it builds a strong relationship with your brand.

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Responsible innovation takes sustainability into account.

Think global, (inter)act local

It’s easy to feel paralyzed when trying to tackle the environmental challenges of the 21st century. Problems like the loss of biodiversity or climate change seem to require a unified global effort — which is true! However, we also need a diversity of bespoke local efforts that are unique to their context. Glocal initiatives like urban farming reconnect people with global issues that can feel abstract and distant by addressing them in a local setting. Glocal solutions compound ecological and social effects and build the pre-requisite conditions for broader political and socio-economic changes.

— Ilya Prigogine

Sustainability and User Experience

As designers, the projects we work on give us a space to connect relevant global issues with the specific settings and use-cases of a product or service. Project constraints allow us to make tangible solutions for otherwise abstract problems. This is not just true for projects that focus on ‘sustainable design.’ Any project relates to sustainability in some way. If we choose to consider sustainability as a factor in the design phase, the constraints of a specific product give designers the space to make concrete solutions for otherwise abstract issues. This can be applied to the production and after-life of the product, but also the user experience. We can empower consumers to be an active participant by integrating and designing sustainability interactions. Letting UberEats know how much cutlery you need or nudging people towards ground shipping are interesting proposals made in an article by Artium Dashinsky. We can even stretch the definition of what we consider user experience. For example, while we take great care of the ‘unboxing experience,’ a sustainable design would also consider the ‘recycling experience’ of disassembling a product at the end of its useful life.

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In his article Product Design for Sustainability, Artiom Dashinsky shows how UX solutions would be if we considered sustainability as a factor in the design process.

Leaving things better

Sustainability is one of the many aspects that have to be considered to make a successful and responsible product. Often enough, it’s not considered at all. When we worked with the students at CIID, we centered the process around sustainability (read more about it here). We asked them to identify local contexts that show some manifestation of a global problem they want to tackle. A ‘context’ in this case usually involves human behavior, incentives, laws, and also products and services. Most groups addressed “responsible consumption and production” (SDG 12), but the actual design challenges they faced were quite different. The specificity of their local settings allowed the students to deploy different design processes and come up with responsible innovations that involve the users.

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A ‘glocal’ approach engages people directly with issues that might feel distant and abstract otherwise.

Making products has a negative ecological impact by default. Precious resources are necessary for the creation and after-life of any product. Of course, a good product will create value for the customer, but we wanted to go further. Can we design a product that has a positive ecological impact during its use phase — at least when compared to the status quo? This is the challenge we gave the students. It required them to go beyond designing interactions between product and user(s) and consider how to create responsible participation in all systems the product and user are embedded in.
(If this sounds a little abstract, examples are coming later 👇)

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Modern products need to create value for not just the user, but also the environment. Eco-positive products have the potential to offset the costs of production and after-life during their usage phase.

Compass over Maps. Principles over Process.

Earlier in the class, the students arrived at a set of four shared values for designing with sustainability. Once you work on a specific problem, values are often too broad and abstract to be actionable. That’s why each group created principles for their project. Principles are values applied in a particular context. Done right, they can be a powerful compass that helps teams navigate the design space and wage decisions. For principles to be actionable, they need to be specific to the context and problem you design for. And as your understanding of these things changes, the principles might, too.

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Principles are values applied in a context. The students brought values to life in their

Equipped with principles and issues, the teams set out to prototype products and services with sustainability and user engagement in mind. We won’t be able to discuss all of them in this article, so the following part will show a few examples of what the students worked on. We will add a link to all projects once they are uploaded.

Saving your phone battery by unplugging

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Unplugging your phone once it’s done charging stops trickle charging that harms your battery long term.

Waking up to an uncharged phone might be the worst nightmare of people suffering from battery anxiety. But the truth is that keeping your phone plugged in after the battery is fully charged is harmful to your battery. UnPlug helps you solve this problem by sensing that your phone is fully charged and unplugging itself so that you can sleep in peace.

Reducing the waste of the toy industry

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A modular toy set with a smart core that can be adapted by kids and parents minimizes the waste of buying and discarding toys.

Kids can quickly lose interest in their toys. The material mix of fabrics, plastics, and electronics can often be hard to recycle. Card-o-Rama proposes a modular toy system with a ‘smart core’ that brings shells made of cardboard to life. Even the cardboard box this toy is shipped in can be used for the first creation. The electronic components in this product will continue to live on for several cycles and could eventually go back to the company where it’s refurbished and distributed to another child.

Taking the bite out of vampire devices

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“Time Machine” teaches kids about vampire devices and incentivizes them to unplug their video game consoles by rewarding tokens for extra playing time.

Game Consoles consume up to 44% of their total energy while in standby mode. The Time Machine project teaches kids about vampire devices by rewarding every hour that the device is unplugged with a token that can be redeemed for extra playing time. While automatically disconnecting these vampire devices is technically feasible, this way teaches kids about standby power consumption in a playful way and nudges them into responsible behaviors.

Be gentle to your rental

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The Emagine assistant makes sure people take good care of shared devices.

Many household appliances like vacuums or drills are rarely used but still owned by each household. Emagine is a service that allows people to share underutilized appliances in their apartment complex. Sharing services are troubled by the issue that people often don’t take good care of shared devices (think e-scooters). This is especially problematic when the hardware is not designed for novices or sharing. So each product comes with an ‘assistant’ that helps you use it and makes sure you take care of the product appropriately.

Stop boiling water you don’t need

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An indicator helps to fill your kettle just right so you only boil the water you really need.

65% of British kettle owners admit to overfilling their kettles. A day worth of energy wasted on boiling too much water in England is enough to power the streetlights of London for one night *. The Little K helps you fill your kettle just right by indicating when you have reached the volume of your usual cup or can. You won’t have to buy a new pot either, as this product works as an add-on to most existing water kettles.

— John Thackara

Working with sustainability can often feel overwhelming. When we see it as a singular challenge, we fall into the trap of looking for magic bullet solutions. But once we break down our global challenges into their specific aspects and contexts, they become a spectrum of real and tangible challenges that are unique and personal in scale. Almost every product or service has some touchpoints with sustainability. If we identify these early in the design process and allow ourselves to experiment and take risks, we will find a variety of small tweaks and significant changes that can be applied to each problem. These solutions don’t just help the bigger mission of producing and consuming responsibly, but often show new ways of saving money or creating new streams of revenue.

This work is part of our mission at Above to drive positive change. Today, and tomorrow. We want to develop innovative sustainable solutions in our own organization, for our clients, partners, and other stakeholders. If you are interested in this topic or have feedback on this class, please get in touch! We would love to hear from you!

Article and class are a collaboration by Victor Johansson, Johanna Tunlid, and Felix Heibeck.

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