Circular Design – The Role of UX in the Age of Sustainability

We live in a world that is crying for change. The careless and endless consumption modern societies have been living by in the last 50 years is simply not sustainable. We were raised not to care about our things. If something breaks, we don’t fix it. Products are designed to be thrown away and not to be fixed. And products of the digital world are no exceptions. But there is a new way of thinking that emerged to address these problems: Circular design.

But what does a circular design approach mean? And how can it be used when working on digital products? To answer these questions, first we need to take a closer look at how we’ve built our world so far, why it is not sustainable anymore, and understand how the need of a cleaner world transformed our way of thinking and made us desire to shift to a circular design model from a linear one.

Making the shift to a circular approach

Our economy is mostly based on the take-make-dispose flow. In this linear system, we build products that die after some time, and their components are considered as trash. As opposed to this, circular design approach sees a product’s life-cycle as a closed loop where resources are continuously repurposed. 

In the ‘classic’ linear model, a product goes through the stages of production, consumption, and disruption and ends as waste. When designing a product in a circular process, we use an approach that contains four big stages that form a cycle, creating a constant loop where materials are always welcome in the game, not only when they are shiny new and unused.

These four stages are:

  • Understanding
  • Defining
  • Making
  • Releasing

shift to circular approach

When we look at the approach of both the linear and the circular design models, one thing that catches the eye is the difference of the methods when we start designing things. There is a change from just producing something, towards making a thought-out decision of what we will produce and putting effort and care into the implementation.

Taking a look at where we stand now 

Why is it so crucial to make this shift? I am sure everyone who checks the news has heard of climate change. NASA dedicates much of its attention to environmental issues, so we can all get a very detailed picture of what effects human behaviour and the endless thriving for infinite growth is having on our ecosystem.  

But the good news is that we don’t have to carry on this way because we can make a change easily by learning from how things are ‘produced’ in the digital world. Electrical waste has become one of the main types of waste sources of the modern world. Tons of phones and computers are thrown away and the economy is based on coming up with something new every year.

What do we do when our phone screen gets shattered accidentally? Do we even know what to do with it? Do we know how to repair it? Not really… But luckily some designers have a solution for this problem. Fairphone is an ethical, modular smartphone, which has a low number of components that can be easily replaced and also recycled. Big companies should also try to take a step in this direction, and make recycling and sustainability cool and the norm, once and for all.

The importance of design and designers

Designers, above any other professionals, are the ones who can make a huge impact in making this shift. I also dare to say, it is our responsibility to act and think with a circular design approach in mind. Because we are the people who create the things that end up on the conveyor belt. We are also responsible for educating our clients as well. Luckily, more and more people value objects and brands that have a sustainable purpose, or a meaningful story behind their products. Also, sustainability became not only a buzzword, but a real value, and more and more people realise that infinite growth based on finite resources is an impossible goal to achieve. But to make this shift from a linear to a circular economy, we need to learn how to think differently. Luckily, the era of smart devices and digital products has brought a complex design thinking methodology to the table that can act as an example for the producing chains in the physical world.

What the UX methodology has to offer

There is one place on Earth, where you can’t just throw things away: the Internet. This is the one place where the ideation of an already existing product happens organically because you’d simply lose your users if you’d say overnight: ‘I don’t like my website, I’ll just launch a totally new one tomorrow’. 

If we look at the four main stages of the circular design approach, we can see that the method we use in UX design is pretty similar to this. 

Let’s look at the four stages again, and break them down in more detail:

  • Understanding

When we talk about understanding in connection with circular design, we talk about getting to know the users and the environment of a future product, before starting to design it. Research has always been the foundation of digital product design. Connecting to a digital product involves the human psyche much more than connecting to objects does, so it was inevitable to develop research methods that help us with giving true insights on how users think, feel, and act when using a certain product. Here you can find nine research methods everyone should know about. But it is not only about the users. Research also has to go deep into the economy and take a look at the components of the future product, keeping in mind that they have to be recycled.

  • Defining

At this stage a (business) goal is defined, and a business model canvas is built that acts as a plan for the production process. UX has used such methods for some time to get the stakeholders involved, and also to activate them more in the design process. To set a goal for the product that we design is crucial because with it we can create extra value for our users. So whether it is making a business model canvas, or conducting an awesome value proposition workshop – implementing these methods into the way things are produced can make a huge impact on the current production flows.

  • Making

This is the critical part. Right now we are making things as if there was no tomorrow. And with each product that can’t be recycled, we produce more and more thrash. But the circular approach is about creating a prototype for the product and defining what materials will be used in a way that reflects the product prototype and defining the materials on the business model that was outlined at the Defining stage. Prototyping and ideation are key elements in the UX design process. Here is a summary of why you need prototypes

  • Releasing

According to the circular design model, with the release of the product, the production cycle reached its fourth phase, and the understanding phase begins again. With digital products this happens naturally: You release a product, then you gather feedback based on that version, and you ideate it, and the cycle begins again.

But looking at this loop, and making these connections was just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much the world can learn from the design thinking that has been developing in the digital age. 

Big names in the game

Luckily there already are huge brands who realised the need for change and have taken and ideated the methods of digital design thinking to support the change and to establish the era of circular design. According to this Circular Design Guide, ‘we should think of everything we design like software – products and services that can constantly evolve, based on the data we get through feedback.’

One thing UX research and UX design have always been doing: Building products based on thorough research and on true user needs. The above design guide is a very complex tool, with lots of possible methodologies. It is highlighting the importance of taking a shift from products to service processes, as well as showing how to use agile processes and implement them into your way of building products.

Ideo has teamed up with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation to try ‘to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.’ Here you can find almost every aspect and field of production – for example, food, fashion, economy, and design – with proposed solutions in each field, to break the linear production system.

Nike has also declared its principles of the new way of producing high-quality shoes based on the circular design model. As you can already see, no matter what segment of the economy you are in, you can thrive for a circular production process, and be a leading force.

Takeaways

I think, as designers, we always have to thrive for change, and for the goal of never ending a relationship with a client, a product, or a service, but to stay in touch and make it better and better through ideation. This is because great things can only be achieved with time and constant ideation. The digital design processes have a lot to offer in the offline world too. Hopefully, with education, more big companies will also realise that there is more power in a product that the users really want to care for, instead of just treating them as disposables that can be thrown away once they are not as shiny as they were on their first day.

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Follow up on the topic of circular design with our article on how to disrupt industries with a lean method.

For additional reading, check out our Product Design book by our CEO, David Pasztor. We ship worldwide!