Mari-Liis Kärsten, Senior UI/UX Designer, Raul-Kristjan Piiroja, Junior UI/UX Designer and Helen Kokk, Partner & Creative Lead, April 12, 2021
Sustainability has become a common principle and familiar part of our daily lives, specifically when it comes to physical products. However, what is new is that we are becoming incrementally more aware that the digital sphere is no different. And sustainability, with its tangible benefits – from environmental and social impact to economic viability, is gaining momentum in digital products.
Building and designing sustainable digital products and services is largely based on circular economy principles. In short, applying sustainability to design means that we consider the product’s entire life cycle. We make sure that it’s efficient, optimized, adaptable to system changes, reparable, reusable, and carries longevity as a major asset.
Like physical products, digital sustainability aims to build solutions that offer a higher value than what was lost in its making. Furthermore, the benefits range from scalability to optimized resources, cutting costs, saved energy, reduced digital waste and increased customer retention through the service’s consistency and integration initiatives.
This leads us to the next challenge: It is estimated that more than 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the product’s design phase. Inspired by this challenge and responsibility, we composed a checklist for quick self-assessment, that helps to be wise about the methodology and tools when developing a sustainable product and service, while having its long-term perspective and entire life span in mind.
Our 10-question checklist is a brief audit to determine how well optimized and sustainable your current digital product or service is. It doesn’t matter if you have an already-existing service or you’re in the middle of developing it. It helps to audit the main categories relevant for sustainability, starting from business model to implementation tools.
We have mapped out the checklist items according to the service design phases, so you can discover optimization possibilities every step of the way – in the research and analysis phase, in the middle of creating a proof of concept, or already developing and implementing your solution.
Note that digital products are always interconnected with physical resources, starting from hosting servers and energy resources to supply chain operations, which is why digital sustainability also involves revising related processes and user journey steps in the physical world.
Let’s take a closer look at the steps in each development phase.
1. Do you know which factors influence the current environmental impact of your product or service? For example, are your third-party partners rated by sustainability, e.g., a sustainability-minded hosting provider? We recommend mapping out the physical resources your digital service is using (i.e., distribution channels, supply chain operations and all other physical resources involved in providing the service). Discover more sustainable alternatives and try to optimize the number of resources. (Read more: Planet Centric Toolkit: Business Model Flip Canvas)
2. Do you know the number of steps your end-user has to take to use your product or service? It’s a golden rule – the fewer steps a user has to make for a service or product, the lower the drop rate. Map out your customer’s user journey (including physical) and optimize the number of steps and clicks the end-user has to make. Optimizing the omnichannel journey to complete a task helps eliminate unnecessary energy usage and enables more efficient user onboarding, service utilization and offboarding while improving user experience significantly. For example, see our case on seamless insurance services for more than one million UAE citizens, where refactored user journey was the protagonist of the success story. (Deep dive into this step: Planet centric toolkit: Planet Centric User Journey Canvas)
3. Do you have a plan for how to track your digital footprint? For starters, it helps to measure the carbon footprint of your website, e.g., by using tools like websitecarbon.com. For comparison, we advise measuring it first as-is and then again after implementing the checklist.
4. Are you using a design system? Designing a user interface with the help of a design system allows you to easily increase the efficiency of the design process, reusability and longevity of your product and service, not to mention the indisputable advancement in quality and scalability. For this reason, a design system as a development tool is becoming increasingly actual in developing large-scale government e-services.
5. Are you following Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards in UI/UX design? In a nutshell, the standard is about making accessibility a feature, not a fix. Following these standards makes your product or service more accessible for everyone (including users with disabilities). By improving access to your product or service, you can address and reach a wider audience. Also, with efficient web content, you are improving both the user experience and the quality of your product. The standard is especially crucial in government e-services because state services need to be easily accessible to everyone.
6. Are you utilizing your customer’s data to provide personalized offers? Being smart about your customers’ data means making data-informed design decisions and using it to tailor as personalized content as possible. Besides a seamless customer experience, personalization allows you to offer relevant information to the user proactively. Thus, saving the end-user’s time significantly. Another trick here is to enable fast feedback and the possibility to rate your product or service. Feedback is invaluable when you’re aiming for a product that is lasting and sets the bar in quality. The more immediate and faster the user feedback, the more competitive and effective product you can build.
7. Are you reusing data instead of asking users for the same data over and over again? Reusing and sharing data throughout your service saves energy and time spent searching for relevant information, not to mention end-users’ nerves. For the service provider, it reduces technical loads on repetitive data requests and eliminates the need to collect and store duplicated data. A prominent example is the X-Road® software-based solution X-tee, the backbone of e-Estonia. Invisible yet crucial, it allows the nation’s hundreds of public and private sector e-service information systems to link up and function in harmony, saving Estonians 844 years of working time every year.
8. Is your code clean and easily scalable? The value of well-structured and well-designed code increases over time. It doesn’t matter what kind of development methodologies, frameworks or tools you use; clean code is the foundation for achieving faster and easier development, testing and maintenance, making it much easier to extend and add new features to the solution in the future. As a result, it reduces the costs of software ownership. Additionally, clean code has a favorable side effect on the solution’s performance in loading speed and reduced energy consumption.
9. Are you compressing media files? This is a sometimes underestimated point, but in reality, it’s an important step to ensure the faster loading of images and video content. Furthermore, the energy cost of data usage on the internet is estimated to be 20,151 PetaBytes per month (Cisco 2011). This is equivalent to 241 billion GB per year. And the first step in stopping data centers from gobbling up the world’s electricity is by optimizing your digital content – for starters via TinyPNG webpage analyzer.
10. Are you following Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards in development? This cannot be overlooked when aiming for faster and more efficient access to content. The benefits can be further enhanced with assistive technologies like text-to-speech or listening devices. As with several previous points, the digital touchpoint can improve sustainability by reducing the user’s steps in the physical world. In other words, when a person can’t access the required information over the web due to it being too complicated or inaccessible, he or she will likely try to obtain it via less ecological methods (e.g., driving to the service providers’ office).
UX designer, Natascha Mehrabi, summed up the idea nicely: “The steps we take to reduce energy usage are often the same ones we take to increase load times, improve customer experience, and even reduce costs.”
The shift in paradigm and bringing sustainability into the digital design is more than just about an environmentally friendly mindset. More precisely, ecodesign strategy helps us to think through how to continuously elevate the value of the product and service while maintaining its functionality, aesthetics and practicality. It’s fair to say that these objectives make up a large part of a product’s value proposition.
For example, in the case of the Bliggit app, by following the sustainability and circular economy principles, we achieved a secure and efficient digital infrastructure for the city of Wuppertal in Germany. The app makes all the fragmented services offered by the city (e.g., news, transport, banking, recreational activities and a lot more) accessible to the citizens through a single digital channel, thus, optimizing resources, saving time and energy, and eliminating the need for each business and service provider to develop and maintain their own platform.
To sum it up, if you checked most of the boxes of our checklist above, you are “green” to go. But if most topics generated questions about your development process – and you would like to improve your product or service from a sustainability point of view – we can help you conduct a more detailed audit and set up a reasonable plan to optimize your business.