Can green UX save the world?
Green UX is probably a term you’ll hear more and more in the coming years. For all the benefits that technology brings, there is a dark cloud that hangs over all of us. This cloud chases us in newspapers every day and is felt across the entire world. It makes us fear for the future and question our habits – our youth is even skipping school to demand action. This cloud is mostly made up of CO2 and its name is climate change.
Among the many culprits of rising carbon emissions is the IT sector. It embodies the very thing that has defined the 21st century and includes everyone from UX designers to tech giants such as Apple or Google. It connects the entire globe and, unsurprisingly, requires a lot of energy to operate.
Data – and our growing need to send and receive it faster than ever before – are key pieces in understanding this puzzle. Each time we use data, be it by browsing ecommerce websites, using Facebook or sending an email to a coworker, we spark a chain of events that needs electricity to get us that data.
With technologies like 5G being part of a near future for the market, we can no longer ignore the energy consumption linked to IT. More electricity-intensive demands for IT usually means coal burning. Fortunately, UX designers are doing their part to mitigate this trend of consuming more without worrying about the consequences: that’s where green UX design comes in.
What’s the environmental impact of the internet?
With the consequences of the climate crisis already being felt by many people in the world, global warming is on everyone’s mind. It’s usual for us to discuss Chinese or American emissions but we often overlook the role of specific industries. In all this, exactly where does the internet fit in?
The internet, as pointed out by a 2017 report by Greenpeace, consumes 7 per cent of world electricity as it stands. That may not seem like much but it’s the source of the electricity that raises concerns. Data centres alone are responsible for 2 per cent of carbon emissions – the same amount as the air travel sector, as reported by Adam Vaughan with The Guardian.
As explained by Greenpeace, all this energy can be divided into four categories when it comes to energy consumption: data centres, communication networks, end user devices and the manufacturing that is needed to supply all three.
All this need for energy represents a problem when we take into account the growing human population and the rise of new technologies, such as 5G, which uses up more electricity to deliver data faster.
It is true that not everything is within our power to change. Big and powerful companies are still the ones who call the shots and decide on carbon emissions, with transparency and lack of access to renewable energy being the two main obstacles on this front. But we are not completely powerless in the face of this significant environmental threat.
UX designers from all corners of the world are coming to realise that many things in the IT sector need to change – including the way we design and create. That is what green UX is all about: finding ways to deliver a truly great experience to users while also managing to mitigate energy consumption.
Green UX: accounting for the environment in design
So what is there to do? How can UX designers create products that are smart about their data and electricity consumption? You may be surprised to find that many of the tactics in green UX that work to make products more energy efficient also work to improve the user experience – and are reflected in common web performance indicators.
When it comes to UX design, the main area where most energy is used is also the one with most room for improvement: data usage. This is a factor that is under our control and that we can monitor over time with ease.
The key questions here are: how can we cut back on data usage? How much of the data we send is actually being consumed by our users? Is there a better way to transfer this data?
A simple way to make sure you deliver the same experience while using up less energy is to simply send that data from a closer distance with a content delivery network (CDN). A CDN works, in very broad strokes, as a proxy server that stores a copy of data once users have requested that data once.
This can be a handy tactic, as it tends to ease some of the pressure on your internal servers and results in a faster website for all users. The way CDNs work is that they avoid having to load data repeatedly, which inadvertently results in less data moving around and means less electricity is required to get to user’s screens.
Another way to aim for efficiency is to consider the actual size of the pages we send to users, along with all the content that is in them. An interesting point made by Tammy Everts in her book Time is Money: The Business Value of Web Performance, is that the weight of pages has been growing over time (at an average of 16 per cent per year), which means more coal is needed to move them.
Historically, the heaviest part of web pages has been images. However, more and more pages use videos, which are even heavier. In a 2016 report by Sandvine (Global Internet Phenomena: Latin American and North America), it was found that real-time entertainment platforms for video and audio streaming are the largest category of traffic on all examined networks.
The takeaway here is that heavy content is becoming the norm – long web pages that require a lot of data to load properly. Careful optimisation can help users have a better experience while considerably improving the carbon footprint of your product.
Performance budgets are a handy tool, so designers can check the maximum weight of each type of content for the pagespeed to reach the target goal. It works in a similar way to how governments try to assess the real impact of taxpayers’ money in the budget – and can be a good guide on where optimisation is needed the most.
Green UX won’t save the world – we will
Designing with sustainability in mind has an effect on the dirty energy the IT sector consumes but it is only a small part of a large and complex equation. Designers shouldn’t assume that by changing the way we think about data and how we send it will, by itself, bring about an end to climate change.
But it works as a positive philosophy to have in your design process: just as we want to design for the inclusion of visually impaired users, we want to account for our planet as we plan what a page will look and feel like.
We depend on powers beyond our control, such as the infrastructure of our general location, but that is not to say we need to stick to our inefficient ways. Energy is a key concern in the climate crisis and we should think of it as a precious resource that cannot go to waste.
Green UX is an invitation for designers to see the many benefits the internet brings us but, above all, to notice all that it requires to keep going. It encourages people to look for ways to use less, in an era when using more has dark omens for us all.
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