Applications (also) can be designed to limit their ecological impact

by bold-lichterman

If the ecological footprint of the digital world is pointed out, it is mainly for its mega data centers and its massive need for minerals, rare earths first and foremost. Applications are less frequently cited, mistakenly, whose design patterns lead to massive global data consumption. Yet sustainable design does exist.

Every unit of energy saved is a success

According to Professor Andrew Ellis, from Aston University, the global energy consumption of the digital economy will double by 2030, prediction confirmed by recent reports from Greenpeace. There is no reason to believe that this trend will reverse quickly. The IoT market is growing with the surge of derivative products and solutions. With 5 billion smartphone owners in the world in 2020, that’s even more applications downloaded – 194 billion in 2018 according to App Annie – and energy consumed.

But that does not mean that we cannot limit the ecological impact of technology, and this at all levels. There is no collective responsibility assumed until the individual responsibilities have been assumed. If we admit that everyone has a role to play in preserving our resources, then why not the designer when he intervenes in the design of an application or a connected object?

The overabundance of digital design

If the number of users and devices In circulation is exploding, the problem of our inflationary energy consumption also has its source in the very design of the applications made available to users. Greedy without any data limit, they require, if only correctly, even more energy, unfortunately far from being always green.

Computing is an eternal restart. It’s a global race for ever more powerful, ever more sensational, ever more aesthetic, ever more friendly. Each application, each digital functionality that we use on a daily basis, displays an environmental footprint that is often matched only by a certain futility vis-à-vis our current needs. For example, automatic play on Youtube generates as much advertising revenue for Google as data consumed unnecessarily for the users that we are. Most applications continuously consume data in the background to stay up to date, whether or not they are viewed. Our mailboxes border on morbid obesity. The list is endless.

Include sustainability in UX design

Many design choices are made out of habit as well. For example, systematically offering Gmaps in an application is more of a use than a real reflection. If the visual of the card is pleasing to the eye and ideally complements a service, is it essential?

Moreover, the company is not the only one responsible for the situation. We have to reckon with the sometimes exaggerated tendency of designers to produce something beautiful, Nice to have, with no other link to needs than the pleasure of designing and experimenting. Tim Frick, in his book Designing for Sustainability estimates the frontend’s share of the total ecological footprint of a digital product at 40%. Yes, designers do have a role to play in the general contribution to a greener internet and many are starting to take an interest in it. If sustainable design is the subject of many debates, mainly across the Atlantic (for the moment), few design methods that take into account its ecological impact, are available.

Towards a reasoned and renewed design approach

Finally, the lack of a method does not matter, as long as the ecological footprint is associated with the process from the design stage, by design. This supposes to remain focused on the primary object of the application and not to give in to the demons of temptation, by supplementing it with minor and even superfluous functionalities, major providers of exchanges of flows. A sustainable digital product is an optimized product, which focuses on the main issues to which it must respond.

If we had to push logic to the limit, there would be no real downside to labeling an application, such as organic, ethical, fair trade, cruelty free consumer products… Sustainable application design is not so far from the principles of sustainable agriculture. Nothing is against it, except a certain resistance to having standards imposed. Before even talking about standards, let’s talk about new creative approaches instead. By integrating ecological questions into his thinking, a designer will necessarily adopt another angle of view, which can allow him to question his proposals, to show originality, to renew himself in a word.

The contributor:

Alexandre Le Guerneuve

Alexandre Le Guerneuve is Designer at Fabernovel. He is involved in all the stages of designing an experiment. From supporting the client in the definition of a project through the design and animation of the co-creation workshop, to the realization of functional interfaces. Very sensitive to environmental issues, he seeks to promote responsible design.