Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sustainability & Design #1: The Sustainability Epiphany


Sustainability. Going Green. Eco-consciousness. Whatever you want to call it, it's a movement that's here to stay. Consumers are looking for, and increasingly expect, companies to be responsible to the environment and the people within it when designing, manufacturing, and selling their products and services. As marketers, we've been singing the sustainability song for years (for better and for worst... *cough* Greenwashing *cough*)—it's now time to bring sustainable thinking to the world of design.


The "Sustainability & Design Series" explores the impact of the sustainability movement on product design, user experience, and how companies do business. It is based on insights from the book User Experience in the Age of Sustainability by Senior User Experience Designer Kem-Laurin Kramer. This first post in the series will tell the story of Kramer's "sustainability epiphany" and how it changed her perspective as a designer.



A New Outlook on the World


First, let me tell you the story of how it all started for Kramer. She began her exploration of sustainability and design when she became frustrated by all of the garbage products that are out there. From her three Canon cameras—none of which work—to the keys that would fall off of her brand new Smartphone, she realized how much “planned obsolescence” had become part of consumer society. (Planned obsolescence, a strategy in which “the obsolescence of a product is planned and built into it from its conception, by the manufacturer”, is, as you'll see, an unsustainable design principle.) For big companies, it appears to make sense. People like new things. Companies make new things. Old things are thrown away and forgotten.

But this cycle of consumption isn’t sustainable. Why aren't products designed to last? Why do consumers view them as inherently disposable? Then Kem took a trip back to her home country in the Caribbean. A Third-world country, where resources are scarce and new, affordable products even scarcer. She saw, to her surprise, that the same yellow Toyota pick-up truck that she had seen since she was a little girl was still being used, even after all of these years. This truck, she realized, was built to last—it could take a beating, get fixed and maintained, and after miles and miles, it still kept running! Maybe there was something to the idea of sustainable design, after all...

Then her awareness of the world opened up further still. It wasn’t just about how long products lasted, she saw, it was also about what happened to them once they were disposed of. She discovered wasted electronics, shipped to Third world countries like India, used as garbage dumps for the opulence of the West. Designing something to be more sustainable would have to include not just durability, it would have to take into account its entire life as a product: from inception, to manufacturing, to its use, and finally, to the way in which it was disposed.



The Role of Design... and Designers


Is it obvious yet, how much of a role designers can play within this sustainability landscape? Designers, as Kramer muses, are both at the heart of the problem and the solution: "The design of everyday products and services is often the problem that underlies the environmental issues we face in general. Whether it is the design of a poorly built product that breaks down because of poor material selection or the decision to design a product over a comparable service subscription solution, which uses less to no material, are decisions that eco-conscious user experience researchers and designers face."

Designers, she realized, are not just do-ers, they're leaders, and their philosophy and approach when it comes to being a responsible part of building a more sustainable future means that they can, in many ways, lead us into that future. "Designers, like makers of products and services, are key stewards of our world, because the products and services they design influence the ways in which we live." They could, using both their skills and influence, produce "products and solutions that are not only beautiful on the outside but on the inside, ones that consider the environment, the people, as well the business."

Finally, there was the realization that even the little things—simple design decisions that can easily be taken for granted, can make a difference. "Seemingly simple design decisions [could] address such issues as dematerialization, efficiency in design that in its aggregate form may result in energy savings, or providing users with an out-of-box experience that provides them with recyclability information."


Moving Towards a Sustainable User Experience


What does this all mean when thinking about product and user experience design? Kramer defines User Experience as "a customer’s total experience when it comes to interacting with a product, from how users feel about the product to the brand image, to acquiring it, to using it, and even just having this product as part of their living environment." Effective User Experience Design, to her, is all about "a focus on customers and their interactions with systems, products, and service solutions."

Sustainable User Experience Design adds the element of sustainability, which can be defined as "an approach that aims to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Sustainable Design, then, is "the philosophy of designing products, processes, space, and services to comply with the principle of economic, ecological, social, and cultural sustainability."

Ultimately, it combines the user-centred philosophy of User Experience with the goal of contributing to sustainable processes and practices. "While the user may always be right, designers should design responsibly to encourage more sustainable behaviours," she says. We need to "configure and design solutions that guide, inspire, and seamlessly educate users into making sustainable usage practices natural in the end. Ultimately, a true sustainable design solution lies in a user-centered design strategy for more sustainable end-user behaviour."


What this all means is that we must build in the values of sustainability from the very beginning of the design process. "It is important," Kramer writes, "to establish sustainability performance goals and metrics when establishing all other specifications of a product."

I'll cover three of these approaches—Biomimicry, Product Life-cycle Analysis, and Dematerialization—over the rest of this series. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks John for this great and concise presentation of the book. To say the least, you have covered a good breadth of the general thrust and what inspired the book and I am looking forward to reading the other post. Kem-Laurin Kramer

    ReplyDelete