Product designers should think about including more sustainable practices in their work. They should consider carbon consumption, influencing business models, embedding sustainability principles into the design process, fostering a culture shift, and encouraging innovation in addressing sustainability challenges.

Generate an image that depicts a product designer riding a unicorn while using a computer to design a digital product that has a tree growing out of it, digital art style., generated with DiffusionBee
Generate an image that depicts a product designer riding a unicorn while using a computer to design a digital product that has a tree growing out of it, digital art style., generated with DiffusionBee

☕ Sustainability for product design teams

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we are facing, and it’s also a piece in a set of interconnected problems we will need to solve in the next few years. In the past, I’ve had the assumption that by working on tech products I’d in some ways contribute to these solutions (at least as long as I don’t work on software for oil companies). Now, with climate change seemingly getting worse, I have to admit, this assumption has been naive at best. As a product designer, I’d want to be more proactive in adding sustainable practices not only to my life but also to how I design.

Note from Peter Compared to other topics I cover in this newsletter, I don’t have that much experience working with sustainable techniques. Researching and writing this issue is part of how I intend to learn and apply these more often.

The first step towards more sustainable product design is to better understand the impact of our practices. I’ve added some resources to this. Product design can have a positive impact in two ways, on a tactical and a strategic level.

On the tactical level, the design should take into consideration the carbon consumption of apps and websites. On a high level, this means less consumption of data and computation and more usable interfaces (which turns to less time wasted by users so fewer computing resources). Performance and better UX are usually easy sells, but less time spent on the website and (artificial) engagement might lead to difficult discussions with the business.

On the more strategic level, product design through a deep understanding of users and creative problem-solving can influence business models for services and what features are added to products, and in some cases also what products are created. Depending on the product category the impact can be larger here than on the tactical level. Designers can explore ways to reduce the overall environmental footprint by making informed decisions throughout the product’s life cycle. Additionally, educating users about the importance of sustainable digital product use and encouraging behavior change, such as reducing data consumption, can contribute to overall sustainability efforts.

The difficulty in having more sustainable practices is part of just plain old inertia. When we try to adopt new practices and mindsets (whether it’s new ethical standards, accessibility, or increased design quality), the push of work that needs to happen often leaves little time to adopt or better the design process.

One way to counteract the inertia is to embed such practices directly into the design process: revising design principles to include a sustainability angle, adding such principles to design intentions, and having sustainability checks as part of the definition of done.

More difficult seems to be the adoption of new methods, for example, impact mapping or carbon calculations (for web pages), as these need to go beyond what a designer can do on their own and include other partners. But once the methods are understood, they can be adopted similarly to other new design practices.

Just adding a few new methods to the design toolbox won’t have a large and lasting impact, if it doesn’t go beyond the immediate designer. On a design team level to get momentum, fostering a culture shift needs to happen, for example having training, raising awareness, talks, and workshops around the topic.

As with everything in product development, the design team would need to work together with partners in engineering, product, and other teams too to set common product design goals around sustainability. This should include fostering communication channels for discussing sustainability considerations, sharing best practices, and aligning strategies.

Encouraging innovation in digital product design to find new ways to address sustainability challenges can be a powerful approach. Product design teams with their holistic approach have a great skill set to attack these problems. Designers can explore emerging technologies, materials, and approaches that have the potential to reduce the environmental impact of digital products and contribute to more sustainable practices.

🥤 To recap

  • Climate change is a significant challenge that requires proactive and strategic efforts in product design to address sustainability concerns.
  • Sustainable product design involves considering both tactical (e.g. reducing carbon consumption, improving user experience) and strategic (e.g. influencing business models, educating users) aspects.
  • Embedding sustainability principles into the design process, such as revising design principles, design intentions, and definition of done, can help overcome inertia and drive the adoption of sustainable practices.
  • Collaboration and communication among design teams, engineering, product, and other stakeholders are crucial for setting common sustainability goals, sharing best practices, and fostering a culture of sustainability.
  • Encouraging innovation in digital product design by exploring emerging technologies, materials, and approaches can contribute to finding new ways to address sustainability challenges and promote sustainable practices.

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🍪 Things to snack on

Some resources to get started:

  • - A network for “climate designers”, that has connecting events, learning resources, and a job board.
  • Sustainable Web Design - Method (“strategies”) listing for sustainable web, emission calculation, and links to further resources.
  • - More focused on developers, useful when designing for the web.
  • The Sustainable UX Network - A design community with a Slack group and a podcast to learn more about sustainability.
  • lowwwcarbon - A showcase of low-carbon websites.

While sustainability may start with thinking about the direct consumption of the product we create, there is more to that according to Sandy Dähnert in Sustainable UX is more than reducing your website‘s footprint. The article breaks down sustainability to UX research, UX architecture, UI design, and communications and gives various tools to address sustainability.

Product design is not exactly impact-driven, as the aims are commercial, as Csilla Narai writes in Impact-driven design: getting the results you want. But impact mindset helps in design work in a variety of ways: strategic focus, more effectively tackling complexity, improves brand resilience. The article presents a few tools to achieve this, Theory of Change, Change Roadmap, and Leadership - these can be embedded into a product design process.

There are a bunch of great ideas in Product Design for Sustainability by Artiom Dashinsky on how to add simple features to products that result in more sustainable outcomes. Also, some of the ideas came true since the article was written showing that change for the better is possible. While figuring out similar ideas in any product might be not trivial, as the article shows it might lead also to better business outcomes.

Product design’s challenges to include sustainability goes beyond simple tactics, unfortunately, there are systematic barriers. Sanna Rau mentions two of these in What stops us from designing a sustainable future?, reductionism and measurements of success. Reductionism states that complex problems can be broken down into simple problems to be solved, which for example results in product teams and designers working on separate pieces of the experience - resulting in silos. This keeps designers from taking a more holistic approach. Measurements of success, on the other hand, steer the outcomes the teams trying to achieve, and since they focus on a piece of the larger world, that may hide parts of the entire truth. These two together result in having no simple, easy-to-use solution to a complex problem such as sustainability.

Daniel Christian Wahl’s article, Designing sustainable business models and product service systems takes the system design’s view by showing a few types of business model canvases that includes sustainability. Product design usually works on lower levels than a business model, but these provide good inspiration for how to systematically include sustainability in artifacts the design team is creating.