Are you passionate about the subject of climate change?
Do you wish more people were engaged with the issue?
So I know…let’s build an app! What we need to help people change and adapt is the right tools. Once they have that — then maybe we can help get people to change. That’s what I thought.
Now….I am not so sure.
Over the past few months, I have been investigating the notion of building an app to track people’s carbon footprints and to help them reduce it.
- People are confused by all the data there is on the topic: We could make this clear for people in a simple app!
- People are reluctant to make changes if others don’t: We could build a community so people can see what others are doing and see others are playing their part!
- People don’t feel they can make a difference: I developed a (non-sophisticated) wildlife model which could demonstrate impact in terms of wildlife saved on an individual level. People could feel they are making a difference!
- People have other concerns which dominate their lives right now, whilst climate change is an issue which is abstract and in the future: We would make it seamless and easy for them to use the app by collecting data from API’s etc to track footprints and suggest changes. It would be easy for people to use!!
I also knew we needed to incentivise people to engage. People have so many things competing for their attention — especially on their phone — that they need to be motivated to do this beyond just good intentions. So I figured out some ideas for how we can reward people for reducing their footprint.
Finally I would bring this all together with an understanding of behavioural psychology so we would ensure we build an app that syncs with how humans think and operate!
I spoke to a bunch of people about this with passion — and the reception was generally very supportive. Quite a few good friends have spent quite a bit of time helping me out — in particular Meryl Wingfield, Amrita Das and Stephnanie Alys — all were generous with their time. They all felt quite excited by the idea and topic. Many others seemed quite enthused too.
However, after spending a few months on this, I have decided to stop. Why?
Reason 1: Customer Demand
Consumer conversations and surveys made me realise very few people (even those who are very motivated on the subject) really want to track their footprint continuously.
Some people do measure it on an occasional basis to see how their footprint has gone down. But daily? That’s different.
To figure this out I followed as closely as possible the principles laid out in books like The Mom Test (must read if you are a budding or even experienced entrepreneur) where I didn’t ask people about what they might want — or if they would use what I was looking to build. I focused on behaviour they already have today.
Looking back, I spent quite a bit of time developing what felt like exciting ideas about how we would get people to reduce their footprints — but waited too long to address the key question over whether people actually want this. Classic and standard founder mistake! I’ve been in this space long enough to know that’s almost the first thing to do.
The nail in the coffin was when I tested out advertising on Facebook. I did the classic landing page test driving some traffic from Facebook. The number of signups was very low despite ensuring that the messaging was very clear and having a credible landing page.
I am a firm believer that you need to test engagement with a group of people who have no connection to you whatsoever. Often I see startups can get an initial set of signups or people interested in a product among the communities they exist in — people around you always want to support you. But it can lead to false signalling. Here I had no false signalling.
Reason 2: I tried tracking my own footprint. I realised I don’t care what it is on a daily basis — certainly not enough for the effort required to track it
I tried using a bunch of trackers. I found it a very unengaging experience. Most of what I would see just didn’t mean much to me. Maybe someone can come up with much better UX and make it mean more — but it still doesn’t address the underlying problem — I and most people struggle to relate to what a tonne of carbon actually means on an emotional level. What changes in the world? All the best UX in the world will struggle to make up for that.
There is no feedback loop which is very important for an app to become something you use as a habit.
Furthermore, daily tracking doesn’t make sense in this context. If I fly on sunday, then my footprint shoots up for that day (and for that week and month even unless you fly very frequently). There are too many uneven non-routine events that make a huge impact on your footprint that are not part of your daily actions — apart from maybe diet. Even with diet there are some days I might want to eat meat, and on others I might not. I would say a weekly summary matters more in this context with maybe a separate compartment for more large exceptional items such as flying. You could allocate a budget for weekly tracking from your usual routine and a separate budget for flying etc that is annual maybe.
Looking at my CO2 usage for a given day or week also meant nothing to me. I know that the average footprint for people in the UK is between 6–8.5 tonnes a year. How many people even know this? Very few I can tell you from talking to people.
Reason 3: Getting the data from users will require a lot of work
It’s also really hard to get all the data you need to track it.
What did I eat that day? How did I travel? What goods have I bought?
I knew getting people to type in the data required to calculate this was simply not going to happen — not on a daily basis! So I thought I would see what data I could collect.
Getting energy usage would be quite easy. Your utility company tells you what energy you used in your bills.
Travel is also possible — geo-location, motion sensing and some intelligent algorithms could figure out whether you are walking, in a car or train.
I could also connect to email and get flight purchase info and other purchase information.
It is a lot harder to get other offline purchase and food consumption data though. Maybe I could link to Myfitnesspal. I could also link to bank accounts using open banking. However looking at bank statements — there is almost zero line-level data in there. It says I went to waitrose today and spent £49.99. Nothing else.
(Note: There is a company out there that might soon be changing that though — Flux. If you are looking to do something like this — check them out at www.tryflux.com — you can ping them at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to hear about what is coming next for them. They might just be the solution you are looking for….)
In the meantime though there is no line-level data to use. What you could do is ask users to take pictures of receipts and use OCR to extract their purchases — but of course this means users will need to remember to do this. It’s possible. Whether you can get users motivated enough to do it is another matter.
Maybe you could collect ‘some’ data. But the insight from ‘some’ data literally just means almost nothing to the user. That’s certainly how I felt when trying the tracking apps I downloaded.
This all needs to be considered before you even get into the minefield over whether consumers would be willing to hand over the data necessary to make this happen. I certainly felt skittish doing so — and after testing the apps out I removed all the access I had given quick time.
Reason 4: Carbon accounting is very hard
Some of the people I spoke to who were really passionate about the issue and had made big changes in their life for it were sceptical about carbon tracking.
Because they know how hard it is to do accurately.
An example of what all the variables that actually go into calculating the carbon footprint of a steak can be found here — https://www.cmse.ie/carbon-footprint-calculator/.
Maybe many of those variables are less relevant (as in their contributions are very small to the total for the steak) but many of them are not.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be attempting to do this. Definitely we as a society should be looking to figure this out so we can guide people what to do. Without data we can’t understand what actions we can take.
But to get the data so it’s meaningful and accurate in an app on a daily basis? That’s another story.
I also realised — carbon tracking is just one part of the much bigger picture. How much waste do I produce? How much water do I use? How much land is needed to support my lifestyle? The trend amongst those people who I felt had thought the most about this issue seems to be more towards people wanting to understand not just their carbon footprint — but how many planets are needed to support the lifestyle they lead if everyone on the planet lived like them. This is a metric people can understand and relate to.
It is definitely how I will be thinking as I continue to work on my own impact.
Reason 5: You Don’t Need Apps to Know What to Change
If people are motivated to change their actions, it just takes a little bit of searching around on the net to get a good sense of what to do and what not to do. It’s not complicated to figure out which of your actions make a difference or don’t.
- The carbon footprint calculators on the net can definitely help you track to see how it has changed.
- There are many guides to reducing carbon footprints online. You don’t need an app for that.
Could apps help people who are somewhat motivated to change their behaviour? Maybe. There is some benefit for sure in tracking your behaviours to understand better what you actually do and where changes can be made.
However this could be done maybe with a much simpler habit tracker app. Or even pen and paper.
Reason 6: Once people have made the changes they are willing to make, why do they need the app anymore?
Churn in apps — or indeed all products — is one of the most challenging aspects of building a product offering.
I’ve seen over and over that many companies can get people to try their product via a variety of techniques (often leading to misplaced confidence in the prospects of the product) — but the litmus test is how many stick around?
The fact is that in this space there are a small number of actions that will cause huge changes.
Note — this reason doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build a product like this. Maybe you are happy to build something that people use for a while and they make their changes, and then they move on. You will have made a positive impact with that. If that is your key aim then great — but be honest with yourself about it because you will struggle to build an actual business in this context.
This reason combined with all the other reasons though makes the whole proposition not compelling.
I simply don’t think calculating carbon footprints is a thing that people want solving on a daily basis in the near future. So all those apps (I count 11 which are actively being updated in the UK app store right now — and lots more which the developers stopped updating) which are predicated as having calculate carbon footprints regularly as a core theme are building something people don’t really want.
What do you think? Have I mis-judged? What is it consumers do want to help them with their journey to be more sustainable do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Some people might read the above and feel a little sad about this. I am not. In fact, this exploratory journey has helped me realise that there is TONS going on already to help us solve this problem.
Furthermore, there are many people who are already changing their lifestyles to help us solve this problem. The carbon footprint in the UK has dropped over the past 2 decades so we are trending in the right direction — we just need to go faster.
Maybe a day will come when your carbon footprint will drive your status as much as how much money you have.
I hope so. Until then I am happy to just know and work towards just ensuring I am following the advice given on websites such as https://www.goldstandard.org as far as I practically feel I can.