How to reduce the digital carbon footprint through UX design

We always connect sustainability with things we see every day, like waste or smog. But what about digital consumption? Did you know that it generates massive amounts of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions? Although it does not seem like it, the ‘internet’ footprint is bigger than most countries. And it is growing every day.

So, how are digital products an environmental concern? And how can we, as digital designers, help reduce the footprint and take conscious decisions regarding the products we work on?

Sustainability and digital products 101

We live in an extremely digital and technological world. With a couple of taps or clicks, we can buy something from our favourite shop and get it without moving. Or, we can ask Siri how tall Kilimanjaro is and get the answer in seconds. But do we know how this really works? Is everything as clean and as simple as we perceive it?

Well, the short answer is ‘no’. And to explain it in a digestible way, every ‘action’ we perform online carries a lot of internal and automated actions between devices, databases, and others. All those side actions: sending, communicating, storing, or anything else consume electric power. And this consumption is directly proportional to the size of what we are handling.

Mobile data antenna

Mobile data antenna (Source: Unsplash)

Talking about figures, it takes about ~5kWh of electricity to transfer 1 Gb of data, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Considering the average website load (~3Mb) and the fact that 3 working hours of a 60-watt (0,06kWh) lamp generates 42gCo2, we can roughly estimate that the average website generates ~10gCo2 every time we load it. And that’s only the data transfer so we can see the website in our browser!

In summary, the internet as a whole emits more Co2 than most industries. But as the experience is so smooth and simple from our side, we are not as aware as we are with other businesses. If you dare to look, you can check the real-time statistics.

Tiny product decisions with a big impact on sustainability

By now, we know a bit more about the impact digital products can have on sustainability. Still, given how much of our lives and work happens online, we cannot stop using the internet. Let’s see what we can do to reduce the environmental impact of the products and websites we work on.

Reducing emissions at work

In our day-to-day lives as designers, there are some things we can do that are related to our direct actions. And involves mainly small things and behaviours that we can shape by being aware of the impact.

During our working hours, we can try to reduce the office supplies we use and turn off devices while not in use. Besides those, we can try to apply the same small actions we do at home to save on the energy bill: turn off lights in rooms we’re not using, unplug devices etc. If possible, working from home to avoid your daily commute can reduce your carbon emissions even more.

While at work, one of the most impactful ways to reduce emissions is to hold meetings online. Even though video conferencing is a big source of pollution, it is not as big as taking round-trip flights. This practice is useful not only for design-related meetings but also for business meetings or even for most UX Research practices, like usability tests with people from different continents.

If we are used to this practice already, the next step would be to save data during those online meetings. And we can do it by turning our cameras off when they’re not needed or when we are working with a coworker we already know. There’s always the option to have an intro with cameras on, and then turn them off if not necessary.

Hosting

Do you remember what we mentioned in the intro about how Co2 is generated through the electricity consumption of the transfer and storage of data?

Well, if you are aware of the news lately or almost any communication media, you know that there are two ways we produce electricity. One is by burning fossil fuels or coal, and the other is by renewable sources. The one that is less harmful to the environment is the latter, also known as green energy.
Three wind turbines on top of a green hill.

Wind turbines collect some wind energy (Source: Unsplash)

Considering that, the energy source your hosting provider uses makes a huge difference. If you are not sure if your site or the site you regularly visit runs on green energy, you can check it out on websitecarbon.com and even see how much Co2 it generates.

So, if possible, be sure that you use green hosting providers. Some time ago this kind of hosting was expensive, but lately, prices are more competitive and you can find one for a good price. Now, price is no longer an excuse. One of the best options is GreenGeeks, but there are plenty of good options for green hosting.

Size matters

Getting back to our direct action, we can make a huge difference by reducing as much as possible the transferred data of the product we are working on. To achieve it, every small action or kb we remove from the overall download counts. Thinking about it as a whole, those kbs will be loaded thousands of times in the future.

The way to do it is by basically being aware and questioning everything. It’s as simple as that. By paying attention we must question ourselves things like: Are we using everything that we are downloading? Or is there a best/lighter option without compromising on usability?

For example, are we using all the weights of the font? Or maybe 2 or 3 is enough? In that way, we might get rid of half the weight of the whole font family. We can be more radical and be picky about the characters we are not using, and remove them.

‘All you need is less’ handwritten sign in a protest-like shape.

The motto here! (Source: Unsplash)

Another detail we usually forget regarding design is pictures and illustration optimization. About this, we can do a couple of things. First, if we can, prioritize the use of CSS or SVGs over JPG/PNG/WebP files. The difference in size is significant and the flexibility of CSS and SVGs is enormous.

But maybe we have no other option than to go with JPG/PNG/WebP. In this case, we need to optimise the images we’re using. And not only for desktop, but for other screen sizes as well. There are many ways to do it, but if you are not in a research mood, you can try with sqoosh.app. It’s a very simple web-based tool that lets you shrink the size of your images showing you in real-time how the end result will be in comparison to the original.

Getting others on board with sustainability

We are aware of some small actions we can perform to reduce the carbon footprint of our product. But how do we get the rest of the team onboard?

Companies, upper management and stakeholders level

We as everyone are aware that these kinds of practices and problems are not the top focus of any business, due to a lack of budget (time or money-wise) or different priorities.

But a key reason to bring this topic to the table is that all the mentioned practices do more than just take care of the environment. They also boost the load speed of the site or product. That translates into a better positioning and better User Experience. And even reduce the hosting costs in the long run! With this reasoning, it’s easier to get others on board, and as a plus, we will be reducing energy consumption.

The other possible approach that is growing stronger lately, is the public image that the companies intend to give. By performing these small actions, we help build the green image of the products and support their social responsibility objectives. Although the company will not become green by just doing this, it is still a very valid point to consider. We are not promoting ‘green washing’ here!

Development team

This is probably the hardest team to get on board. And the reason why is that most of the practices commented on before, represent an extra layer of work for the developers. But even in that case, this situation can be beneficial for this group as well.

The ‘size budgeting’ is their ally. It is an agreement done in advance between teams about what should be the higher limit of the feature or website they are working on. And can be used by designers and developers as an extra reason for saying ‘no’ to that highly complex and byte-heavy request.

Your users

Last but not the least, the users. They are not the ones that will be building the product with us or have the last word in the company decisions. But they are the ones that are using it and consuming content or data through it. So, our goal regarding this topic is to influence them enough to be conscious of what they are doing.

On one side, it’s important to provide users with valuable feedback. By communicating the impact of their actions we can bring awareness, and hopefully educate them. The objective is to transcend the product limits and promote conscious behaviour. A good example is Google Flights, the travel search engine. They show you the available flights, with the CO2 emissions. But Google flights goes a step further, providing users with other ways of doing the trip. By clearly displaying the benefit of travelling with one or the other, it’s easier for users to understand the impact of their decisions

Table with options of trips by train showing the emissions each makes and the difference with the average for the route by flight.

Google Flights example for train options. (Source: Google Flights)

And from a more ‘direct action’ perspective, we can provide actionable items with feedback as long as possible. Also, it’s important to give the users alternatives, while mentioning the effects linked to those. For example, give the option to remove unnecessary wrappings or disposable cutlery when buying online.

Takeaways

In summary, we are now aware that the Internet is one of the most polluting industries worldwide. But we have some handy tools at our disposal to minimise the impact our products have on the environment.

These are some of the things we can do:

During working hours:

  • Reduce office supplies and power consumption
  • Online meetings over flying to meet in person
  • Turn off your camera if it’s not necessary

Hosting your product

  • Switch to a green host!

Size budgeting

  • Save every kb possible
  • Clean before leaving

Getting others on board

  • Bring awareness to the decision table
  • Give options and educate the users about their impact

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Agustin Diaz

Product designer at UX Studio.