UX and sustainability: What is our role as researchers?

December 17, 2018
As UX researchers and designers, we should consider the entire product lifecycle, including disposal. If possible, also thinking ahead to future product iterations and how product replacement will be handled.

Earlier this year, I was a part of a formative study for a pharmaceutical manufacturer to investigate patients’ opinions about a new liquid medication delivery device. It was a daily dose that came in one-time-use bottles made of plastic, meaning patients would have to dispose of approximately 30 bottles per month. One of the unexpected insights we gathered from this study was that participants were highly concerned about the waste involved and almost unanimously voiced the desire for the bottle to be reusable, recyclable, or smaller at the very least.

This is an interesting first-hand example of sustainability becoming a factor in user experience (UX). Users often want the latest technology, not only because the capabilities of new devices are helpful in critical ways, but also because our society sees newness as fashionable. And design is often structured around that concept. For example, new software often can’t be run on old devices, requiring the purchase of new hardware – and resulting in a continuous cycle of disposal. This frequent disposal of goods has a significant impact on the environment, and technology may have further environmental effects in the form of energy-demanding websites and electronic waste. So how do we as UX professionals consider the needs and desires of users while also factoring in the broader human value of environmental sustainability? Should that be part of our responsibility?

Design with sustainability in mind from day one

Some experts, including the reputable Don Norman, suggest that designers should consider the full life-cycle of a product as they build it, with the end goal of creating well-cared-for systems. This kind of design not only has a positive impact on the environment, but it can often ultimately improve the user experience (as noted in the example above) and therefore contribute to commercial success.

There are some actionable ways that sustainability can be included in design. For one, product innovators and designers can think ahead to the disposal of the product. How will users get rid of the product when they no longer need or want it? Furthermore, does the invention of this product displace an older model, and what impact will the disposal of the older version have on the consumer? On the environment? Considering these concepts early in the innovation cycle means avoiding greater problems later down the line.

Adding options to reduce waste

On the other end, designers can also look at the ramifications of behavior induced by a certain product or system. For example, food delivery apps might promote waste because of the large amount of plastic and packaging that are often inherently involved in the process. Building in options that provide the user opportunities to reduce waste or save energy is a simple way that designers can promote sustainability and allow users to make more informed decisions about their consumption, which at least for some users, elevates their overall experience with a product.

As UX researchers, we are responsible for investigating what is important to users in order to improve their overall experience with products and services. But humans are complex, and their desires are not always straightforward. Sometimes, the insights we uncover remind us that technology does not exist in a bubble, it exists in societies with values and norms (like concern for the environment). What are some other ways UX professionals might be able to address the intersection between sustainability and design?


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