Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sustainability & Design #4: Getting Virtual


When it comes to getting to more sustainable product designs, sometimes the solution isn't a product at all—but a virtual service. In the spirit of "Dematerialization", the approach to design that aims to eliminate all unnecessary physical components, getting virtual rather than physical can often be the best way to reduce a product or service's carbon footprint...

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 final post in the series will examine Virtualization as an approach to sustainable design.




Dematerialization in a Material World


The final approach to sustainable design that I'll cover is that which seeks to remove the physical component of products and services completely. Whether it's changing the way that people access, consumer, and share content, to changing the way that everyday activities are done, removing the physical aspects of a product or service is most often akin to removing a major part of its environmental impact. Think about it: virtual products no longer have to be manufactured, transported, stored, or disposed of. And yet, in many cases, they retain the same value that they had in the physical world.

Dematerialization, which the United Nations Environment Program defines as “the reduction of total material and energy throughput of any product or service”, can include activities like making physical products lighter, or reducing the amount of materials used in them. For this post, however, I will focus on Virtualization. As Kramer writes: we can “look for ways to move away from the material-based ideals of creation and focus on how we can build for a service model. From a design and user experience perspective, we are on the verge of something very exciting. We are well situated to think about how many virtual experiences will be designed as physical ones phase out.”

Designers must challenge themselves to open their mind and think beyond the physical—how would the same problem or need be solved with a virtual service or experience? Below are just a handful of examples. Enjoy!



Recreating Tangible Products

The following examples are of products that have recreated a physical experience with a product in the virtual world:


Oxford University Press

Oxford University Press has been moving away from the print version of its 126-year-old dictionary towards a digital subscription-based dictionary service for heavy users.


Paper Culture
 Paper Culture is an e-commerce company delivering design through eco-friendly invitations, announcements, and stationary. The company produces virtual solutions that once existed in paper form. (They also plant a tree for every physical paper order processes, and only use recyclable material when paper is ordered.)





Smart Phone Apps

Thanks to innovation in the hardware (Near Field Communications) and software (apps), mobile phones can now be used as transit cards, credit cards, coupons, loyalty cards, and wallets (Square), reducing the need for physical paper- and plastic-based objects.





Virtualizing Processes

The following examples are of digital services that have replaced processes that were once physical:



WebEx
This online meeting service allows people to meet, collaborate, and present as if they were all in the same room seeing the same thing. In this case, user experience and design is “critical in allowing remote users to feel a sense of connectivity to their remote colleagues.” Energy is saved as the meeting participants no longer have to travel to be in the same room.



Online Banking

What may now seem normal was once a trip to the bank for everything from paying bills to depositing cheques. The virtualization of the banking experience has all but eliminated the need to ever visit a physical branch.




Eliminating Entire Supply Chains


Finally, the biggest impact that getting virtual can make is when it not only replaces a physical product with a virtual one, but it eliminates entire physical supply chains in the process of doing so. The most visible example of this is in the content space: books, movies, and magazines, along with the manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, and warehouses that store them, are all being affected by the move towards virtualization.

Amazon Kindle
In Kramer's own words, the Kindle “created a new status quo where instead of physical production, books and other published works retain their digital form and [are] delivered only virtually or with minimal hard form production. This eliminates the need for cutting down more trees, consuming printing materials, warehousing, the need for transportation, energy to support the creation and supply chain associated with tangible goods production. The trickle-down effect eliminates a rather complex chain of unsustainable processes and stems the need to destroy many of our natural resources.”



Netflix
Netflix is another example of taking content that relied on multiple manufacturers and supply chains (DVDs, rental outlets, etc.) and simplified that with a virtual, subscription-based experience.



This final post brings the "Sustainability & Design Series" to a close. Over the course of the last four posts, we've explored the role that designers can play in driving more sustainable experiences, the inspiration that nature can provide when facing tough sustainability challenges, the clarity that an examination of the product life-cycle can provide, and finally, the movement towards virtual, more sustainable experiences. I hope that this series has made you approach design in a different way, and encourage you to consider sustainability in the decisions that you make. Cheers!

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