Many companies tout their efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and adopt more environmentally responsible practices as a way to compete for top talent. Environmentally-conscious developers, designers and content creators can look for companies that limit business travel, offset CO2 emissions and track their sustainability. But environmentally responsible digital design doesn’t stop there. There are many small changes that developers, designers and content creators can make in their day-to-day work to design more environmentally responsible digital products and experiences.
Small design choices can have a big environmental impact
As of January 2021, there were 4.66 billion active internet users, according to Statistica. Every click they make uses energy as pixels light up, scripts run and digital experiences come to life. Streaming videos, personalisation, geolocation and more all contribute to this energy consumption. The choices that developers, designers and content creators make as they build digital experiences determine, in part, how much energy is needed to power this digital world.
Understanding how decisions about colour, font, usability and technology impact energy use can help you deliver more environmentally responsible designs. And yes, the difference between using a blue pixel versus green might seem small, but that blue pixel uses approximately 25% more energy according to Sustainable Web Design. That’s 25% more (or less) energy every time a user accesses the digital products and experiences you build. Making small changes to the way you design and build digital products and experiences can add up to a significant impact throughout your career.
Environmentally responsible design is a win for your team, the end-user and the environment
Digital builders don’t need to choose between environmentally responsible design and a good user experience. In his book Designing for Sustainability, Tim Frick outlines five principles for a more sustainable design framework. The first four could easily be included in a list of tips for improving user experiences.
- Improve performance with lean fast-loading pages
- Improve usability with clear navigation and messaging
- Improve search results with sites that are easy to crawl and deliver answers quickly
- Improve accessibility to deliver relevant content quickly across channels and devices
(In case you’re wondering, the fifth principle is to decrease environmental impact with solutions powered by renewable energy.)
The objective of sustainable design is to create “faster, more efficient user experiences powered by renewable energy,” writes Frick. The beauty of this is that faster, more efficient experiences benefit users as well, making a focus on sustainable design a win for your team, the end-user and the environment.
10 tips to help you build more environmentally responsible digital experiences
You don’t have to make big sweeping changes to build more environmentally responsible digital products. Simply becoming aware of how your decisions impact energy use over the life of a digital product can help you shift towards more sustainable design and development.
Here are 10 tips compiled from Sustainable Web Design, a site dedicated to promoting sustainable practices, to get you started:
- Ensure that content is easy to find and serves a purpose. Design for efficiency so users spend less time, and therefore less energy, searching for what they need. Making content easy to find and providing clear user journeys is better for users and the environment.
- Consider the impact of your design choices. Limiting the use of custom fonts and using images efficiently can help reduce file sizes and energy use while improving web performance. Designers can also reduce energy use by creating colour palettes that favour colours that use less energy on OLED screens which are becoming increasingly popular.
- Use videos only when they add value. Video and animation can consume a larger amount of energy than other design elements. Before adding a video, consider whether or not the video adds value. Could you achieve the same effect with a more efficient design choice?
- Design content to work across devices. Consistency across devices helps users more efficiently navigate digital experiences. A content platform, like Contentful, that delivers content across channels and devices, helps ensure that users have a seamless digital experience as they move between laptops, mobile and IoT devices.
- Make the author experience efficient. Just as helping front-end users complete tasks efficiently reduces energy use, helping content creators publish and manage content efficiently saves energy. Choosing a content platform that enables editors to publish to any digital channel from one central hub, eliminates the redundant copy/paste work caused by content silos.
- Favour a modular approach over one-size-fits-all. Whether it’s your tech stack or a page template, all-in-one solutions tend to include lots of stuff you simply don’t need. Choosing stacks versus suites and taking a modular approach to content enables designers and developers to keep file sizes to a minimum, improve load speeds and save energy.
- Reuse content, code and design elements. A modular approach also maximizes the value of the work builders do by making content, design and code elements reusable. Designers, developers and content creators spend less time and energy searching for or recreating existing assets.
- Build and maintain an efficient backend. Consider the eco habits of the companies that provide the technology you use to build your tech stack and prioritize those that are more environmentally responsible. Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean Report compiles data on companies’ renewable energy use.
- Only track and store the data you need. Tracking, storing and processing user data takes energy. According to British Open University Professor John Naughton, data centres make up about 50% of all energy consumed by digital ecosystems. Instead of tracking everything, consider what information you’ll be able to process and use in a meaningful way. Collecting and storing data that never becomes actionable information is a waste of energy and a business expense that yields no return.
- Consider the full lifecycle. Think through how users will engage with your product, content or design. If users will print the content, can you offer a printer-friendly version that uses less ink? Could you design packaging to be upcycled into something else or include tips on responsible disposal? Does your digital content need to last forever or can you set an expiration date?
Finally, remember that the goal is to become more environmentally responsible, not perfect. All of these tips need to be balanced with customer demand and business needs.