Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sustainability & Design #2: Nature Knows Best

When it comes to designing more sustainable products and experiences, why not start by learning from the best? Mother Nature has been designing sustainable organisms and ecosystems from the beginning of time. Each organism takes only what it needs from the system, and is designed to use energy and resources as efficiently as possible. By taking cues from the processes and "products" that inhabit the natural world, we can take a sustainable approach to our designs.

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 second post will cover one approach to sustainable UX: Biomimicry.

Learning from Mother Nature

The practice of Biomimicry, which was coined and defined by Janine Benyus, is a “new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates, or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.” It's all about looking to nature to Model, Measure, and Mentor the experiences we design.

To be more specific:
  • Model: Emulate nature's forms, processes, systems, and strategies
  • Measure: Using the natural ecosystem as the standard to which the results from sustainable practices are measured against
  • Mentor: Viewing nature as something we can learn from, rather than just take resources from

As an experience designer, you must ask yourself questions like: How does nature attempt to solve the same problem that I'm trying to solve? What organism in nature has adapted to solve this problem in the best possible way? What systems are in place that minimizes waste and maximizes energy? This is just as much an exercise in inspiration as it is a way to adopt specific strategies and tactics from organisms in nature.

The following are a few examples of products, interfaces, and systems inspired by how things operate in the natural world, many of which appear in Kem's book.

Biomimicry in Product Design

Product design is all about designing strategies to effectively solve problems in the best possible way, while, at the same time, using energy and resources as efficiently as possible. Sometimes they can be problems that humans haven't yet been able to figure out how to solve, other times, existing products are made much more efficient at what they already do. The following are two examples of how biomimicry has fuelled the design of two products:

The Woodpecker Axe
The problem an axe is trying to solve is simple: how to chop through wood as quickly as possible while using only as much energy as the axe wielder needs to get the job done. In this case, the designers looked to the woodpecker for inspiration for how to improve existing axe designs. Not only can the woodpecker hammer out over twenty pecks per second, but it does so in a way that does not destroy its tiny body. In fact, its whole body—from its tail, spine, and skull—is designed to perform this job extremely well. The beak-like blade and curved handle design of the axe seeks to replicate this design for human use.

Gecko Tape
Many types of tape already exist for the purpose of sticking things together, but once used, this tape loses its stickiness and must be discarded—creating a lot of waste. Taking a cue from the tiny hair-like structures that geckos use to stick to flat surfaces, Gecko Tape allows users to temporarily bind things together, before releasing them using a quick, easy pullback.

Biomimicry in Interface Design

Nature can also be used to inspire the design of interfaces—the mediums through which we interact with and control products. Interfaces that aren't based on natural behaviours and activities force users to adopt something that solely exists in the manufactured world: such as a mouse or a trackball to control a computer. They often feel, as a result, cumbersome and clunky, and require additional physical tools and electronics, like the mouse itself, or a stylus. Those designs that are inspired by the natural world, however, not only feel better, but they are often minimalist—using as much as our natural behaviour as possible. This saves both materials, but also energy and waste. Below are a few examples of natural interfaces:

The touch and swipe interface of the iPad is so natural to us as human beings that even infants and toddlers can quickly learn how to interact with it. No stylus (or instructions) required.

Microsoft X-box Kinect

Kinect is all about encouraging video game players to use natural motions to control the experience.

Apple iPhone's Siri Voice Command
Apple's Siri Voice Command system is only scratching the surface of the potential for controlling our environments with our voice.

Biomimicry in Systems Design

Finally, designers can look to nature for inspiration as to how organisms interact with each other in the most natural way. Ecosystems have conflicts, of course—animals do survive by eating each other, after all—but they also have order, hierarchy, and purposefulness, too. Everything exists for a reason and interacts with those around it in a meaningful way. Ecosystems are "systems" in the truest sense. Systems that are based on how things are connected in the natural world not only feel better, but they make the most efficient use of resources and energy, too. Here's one example from the social networking space:

Facebook's Singular Social Graph
Facebook had been designed, from the get go, in a very efficient way: each of your friends on the platform is treated equally, and each of them will see updates and activity that isn't necessarily intended for the whole group. This feels unnatural, and contributes to a lot of wasted space in our Newsfeeds. (Since its inception, of course, Facebook has tweaked its Newsfeed algorithm to only show you the updates from your most important friends. Does it work?)

Google Plus and its Social Circles
Google Plus, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up in a much more natural way, allowing users to group and socialize with different kinds of connections, much like they would in the real world.

The next approach that I'll explore in the "Sustainability & Design Series" is the Product Life-cycle Analysis—bye for now!

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