Product Design for Sustainability: How Small Decisions Make a Big Difference
Decision we’re consciously or unconsciously making when designing digital products affecting physical environment via transportation, travel, food, printing, delivery process, shopping etc. I’m going to show how companies can make small decisions to have a better impact on the environment.
I would like to start with a short story that was told by Leyla Acaroglu in her TED Talk. The story is about electric kettles. 97% of households in the UK own an electric tea kettle, and 65% of them admit to overfilling their kettles. The extra energy that is wasted on a daily basis for boiling unused water is enough to light all of the streetlights in England for a night.
But there’s another thing that Brits like besides tea. That’s TV. There is a unique phenomenon called “the TV pickup” that’s happening in the UK. The minute popular TV shows or sport games show go to a break, everybody’s turning their kettles on at the same time, which destabilizes the supply and demand of the electricity balance, and sometimes means that the UK has to buy nuclear power from France. It’s a great example of how this national scale of over consumption could be prevented by more thoughtful product design. It’s hard to blame consumers. If you go to Amazon and search for an electric tea kettle, the number one result would be a kettle that has a capacity of enough water for 15 cups of tea. In addition, according to the photos on Amazon, this kettles doesn’t have a scale that gives any feedback to the user about how much water is inside. Both of these design decisions encourage overfilling and eventually lead to electricity overconsumption. It’s not new that designers who work on physical products have to be sustainable. They have to understand the human-product interaction. Pick eco friendly materials and think about efficient packaging and efficient transportation.
Me and most of the people I know are working on digital products. But if you think about it in scale, digital products have a huge environmental impact as well. User experience and user interface designers, product managers, software engineers-all of these people work on products that shape people’s behavior and daily habits. Think about a company like Uber. Their core product is 100% digital. But daily they operate about 1 million rides across the globe. Uber actually decides how and where 1 million vehicles will go every day. GrubHub operates more than 200,000 food deliveries per day. Think about how many opportunities to reduce waste and use eco friendly transportation they have. Amazon ships about 3 million packages per day. All of them have to be taken by plane, truck, bike, or a drone.
I had a chance to participate in many product discussions. During these meetings, people constantly tried to understand the pros and cons of each solution. They said this solution will increase engagement or conversion or accessibility or security of our product. But, unfortunately, I have never heard any of them use the word sustainability. Also, I couldn’t find good resources that are exploring how different features of digital products could affect sustainability.
So I decided to do some explorations by myself. I created some concepts of how big scale tech companies could create a positive impact on the environment. I intentionally picked relatively minor changes that even the most junior product manager of these products could implement. Even though these changes are minor, you will see that they can have a pretty significant impact. You’ll also see that some of the ideas I suggest will not only make the product more sustainable, but also improve the user experience and potential income of the companies behind these products.
While working on these concepts, this is the definition of sustainability that I was guided by: “Sustainability is an approach to design and development that focuses on environmental, social, and financial factors that are often never addresses.”
My first example is from macOS, the operating system installed on more than 10% of all computers in the world. Here’s how Apple can decrease the paper waste by implementing this change. If I want to print this article from The New York Times, macOS will use four sheets of paper. The last page will include a single line with the copyright credit. The default printing dialogue allows scaling down the content manually. But I think it’s safe to assume that a very small portion of users will actually invest energy in going to the last page and seeing how much content it has and then manually trying to find the right percentage of scaling down to make the last page empty of content. I think in this case the content should be always automatically scaled down. In this specific case, to 98%. To make printing more efficient, and in this specific example, the printing of the last page unnecessary. It will keep the content almost identical but save 25% of the paper that is used to print this specific article.
The next example is from Kayak. Kayak is a flight ticket comparison website and I tried to find a way for them to have a positive impact on the environment. It turns out that most of the fuel that is burned by planes is burned during takeoffs and landings. Let’s say you have to fly from Washington, DC to Minneapolis and you have two options. The first one is flying direct. The second one is flying with a layover in Chicago. Even though Chicago is on the way from Washington to Minneapolis, by taking this flight, the planes will burn 23% more fuel. That fuel is equal to 1,000 litre, which is enough to fill a full tank of 20 vehicles. On Kayak’s website, in case the user gets two options for their request, a direct vs layover, I suggest they display a small educational tag near direct flights that explains why this option is more eco-friendly. Hopefully that will educate users about the impact of their decisions and they will prefer direct flights in the future. In addition, since the direct flights are more expensive, I assume Kayak are more interested in selling direct flights, since they would get a bigger cut from airlines.
The next example is from Medium, a publishing platform that I really like. The whole Medium product is about the reading and writing experience. I think printing articles from Medium should be an expected user behavior. Unfortunately, if you try to print any article on Medium, you will, for some reason, include one or two blank pages at the end. Seems like a bug, but Medium wouldn’t let it happen if they thought about touch points their product has with the physical world and prioritize this use case. I reached out to Medium about this bug several months ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive any response. This bug hasn’t been fixed yet.
The next example is from Uber Eats but it could be potentially any food delivery service. Uber knows my home address, which means they know when I’m ordering food to my apartment. I think Uber can safely assume that I have cutlery at home and ask restaurants not to send me plastic cutlery in my orders, unless I intentionally ask to receive it. It can be achieved by a small toggle in the checkout process. It’s unchecked by default, but if you tap on it, it will enable cutlery. By default, it will suggest the same amount as the amount of meals that were added in the cart. In case the user doesn’t add cutlery intentionally, a comment, “Please do not add cutlery” will be automatically added to the order that the restaurant will receive.
The next example is for how LinkedIn could decrease CO2 emissions and materials waste. LinkedIn has a product called “Jobs”, which you might be familiar with. It’s basically a marketplace for jobs. The most sustainable type of jobs—remote jobs—are not there. Jim and Elijah will speak more about the remote workforce during this conference, but I would just remind you briefly why remote jobs are more sustainable. They require no commuting. They require no office. They allow employees to cook meals at home, which makes them eat healthier and waste less. According to research, remote work makes employees happier and more productive. Remote jobs aren’t just some hipster thing. Corporations like Apple, Dell, IBM, Amazon, and Salesforce have thousands of open remote positions. Successful startups like GitHub, Automattic—which is the company behind WordPress—Basecamp, Zapier, InVision. All of them have completely or partially distributed teams. Remote positions are becoming more and more in demand in the past several years. By not including remote positions in their product, LinkedIn seems to miss a business opportunity. A really easy fix that LinkedIn could implement in a couple of days is allowing the user to type “remote” in the location search field, allowing them to filter open positions search results by remote, and tagging remote positions with an appropriate tag.
The next example is from eBay and how they can encourage people to reuse. eBay’s marketplace is based on supply from the seller’s side demand from the buyer’s side. Which means that encouraging people to sell more stuff from their platform would make their business more successful. That’s exactly what they could do by suggesting to the user to sell their old stuff in case they just purchased something that was supposed to be replaced. This is how I see the purchase confirmation message. In case you bought an iPhone 7, eBay could safely assume that it was bought to replace the iPhone 6s that you bought a year ago and suggest that you sell it. Spending $1,000 seems like a perfect time to suggest to you to get rid of your old phone and get about $400 back. In addition, eBay already has the item description, so creating an auction for your old iPhone wouldn’t be a big deal.
Here’s another example for eBay and how they could decrease CO2 emissions. eBay could do that by encouraging users to prefer ground shipping over air shipping. The CO2 impact from airplanes is between 10 to 20 times higher than from trucks. Similarly to Kayak, by labeling the more eco-friendly shipping option, eBay could explain to their users the environmental consequences of their actions.
The very last example is from Google When I’m requesting a route from my apartment to the office in the Google Maps app, I always receive the car directions as the primary option. Google knows that I never drive, since I don’t have a car, or even a driver’s license. But it still, for some reason, encourages me to get one, instead of promoting public transportation. In this specific example of my morning commute, it takes 20 minutes to get there with a car and 23 minutes with a bus. It’s only a three minute difference, so suggesting public transportation as the primary option could make people prefer a bus over a car. This kind of behavior change would minimize the CO2 emissions of their commute. In addition, Google chooses not to show bike options for cities that don’t have enough data about bike lines. In Tel-Aviv, where I live, sometimes it’s much quicker to commute using a bike instead of a car. By promoting bike options in the Maps app, Google could potentially save people’s time and have a positive impact on the environment. For cities without enough information about bike lines, I would suggest they copy their real-world behavior. For a bike option, Google could just show a car road but with a time estimation that would make sense for a bike ride.
These are all concepts that I wanted to show you today. Here’s some advice I could give to everyone who wants to promote more sustainable digital products. I think the most important thing is to educate yourself about sustainability in general. This way, you’ll be able to understand why and how we should improve digital products. It turns out, there’s a Stack Exchange on sustainability, which I really recommend. When you build a digital product, think about where it meets the physical world, and what impact it would have if 100,000 or 1 million people would use it tomorrow. Challenge the person you’re interviewing for open positions in your company with sustainability questions. Challenge other products to be more sustainable by reporting bugs, opening tickets, and taking your time to talk with support teams to demand more sustainable solutions from their products.
You can find links to some of the materials I mentioned here in my article on Medium. You can find a link to this article on my Twitter. That’s it. Thank you very much.
Leyla Acaroglu: Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore
Product Design for Sustainability
Sustainability Stack Exchange
I’ve been working with technology startups for most of my career. I built a startup that failed myself, found a design and development studio. Currently I’m working on changing the way people work and live at WeWork.