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About World Usability Day 2009: Designing for a Sustainable World

By Elizabeth Rosenzweig, Director

World Usability Day (WUD) was founded in 2005 as a UPA initiative.  Each year, on the second Thursday of November, events are organized around the world to raise the public’s awareness of the need for products that are easier to access and simpler to use. WUD is about making our world work better. It’s about “Making Life Easy” and user friendly. Technology today is too hard to use. A cell phone should be as easy to access as a doorknob. In order to humanize a world that uses technology as an infrastructure for education, healthcare, transportation, government, communication, entertainment, work and other areas, we must develop these technologies in a way that serves people first.

In 2009, WUD approaches design from Cradle to Cradle, and approach that starts design with the premise of using materials that can fully enter a new lifecycle by either going back to nature or going back into the design process as a new product. This holistic approach to sustainable design shows how usability can apply to all of what we do and build.

Designing for a Sustainable World events and forums will focus on how products and services impact our world. Programs will look at all products and services, whether they are buildings, roads, consumer products, businesses, services, or healthcare systems, throughout their lifecycle. The impact focuses on the environment, energy, water, soil, and more. Have the materials and processes that have been used been recycled and are they reusable? Are they user and environmentally friendly? These are questions that must be considered as we design, purchase, use, and dispose of products each and every day.

Human-centered design directly supports the first two pillars of sustainability:

Human-centered design also supports the environmental component by promoting a whole lifecycle approach to design. It explicitly encourages all those involved in design to consider the longer-term implications of their system for their users, and therefore, for the environment.

World Usability Day 2009 will serve as an impetus to creating greater awareness for designs, products, and services that improve the sustainability of the world.

What follows is a series of personal essays on sustainability.

Sustainable Design at Home

By Brian Sullivan

Recently, my wife and I decided to redesign the kitchen in our twenty-five-year old home. We decided to explore green alternatives to save energy and money. Plus, we wanted to reduce our environmental impact while providing a good example of stewardship for our ten-year old son. While planning for the kitchen redesign, we learned that sustainable design is simply good design. 

Consulting with a Certified Green Professional (CGP)
We consulted with a Certified Green Professional™ contractor. As designated by the National Association of Home Builders, the CGP certification recognizes builders and contractors who use sustainable techniques to maximize energy/water efficiency while minimizing the impact to the environment. Our CGP-certified contractor came to our home to perform a product inventory, which revealed the following:

Sustainable Products: Elegant Efficiency
Our CGP contractor encouraged us to look at the ENERGY STAR website to see the different types of water heaters that are available. We viewed the site to explore what we expected to be mundane choices for a green water heater. We were both surprised at the elegant efficiency of our choices. We narrowed down our choice to one of the following water heater models:

No ENERGY STAR: Recommended Stove?
We found it counter-intuitive not to find any recommended stoves at the ENERGY STAR site. Our GCP contractor told us about the latest induction technology that uses magnetism to cook food.

The cook top looks like a standard electric stove, but the stove top uses sensors to detect the presence of magnetic cookware, and then it activates an induction field to adjust to the exact size of the cookware.

Induction cooking can be 70 percent more energy efficient than gas and 20 percent more energy efficient than electric.

Sustainable Redesign Best Practices
Products are not the only green aspects of our kitchen redesign. As part of our redesign project, we wanted a darker stain on our kitchen cabinets and were considering the removal of old wallpaper.

Our CGP contractor does not use volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which evaporate, contributing to air pollution.  VOC’s are often found in paints, adhesives, stains, and other chemicals used in construction.

Besides using zero VOC’s, the CGP contractor employed other green practices. He prefers to reuse and repurpose as much construction “trash” as possible. If we were going to replace the kitchen cabinets, he was going to recommend using them in our garage. He also gave us a handicap grab bar for a bathroom that he obtained from another remodeling project.

A Greener Outcome
When you begin any project, start thinking about how you can make it greener. Nathan Shedroff describes four ways to be sustainable: reduce, reuse, recycle, and restore. My wife and I already try to reduce and recycle. Our contractor introduced us to sustainable products and processes, which were new to us. We reached a greener outcome, learning that sustainable design is simply good design.

Sustainability is Interactive

By Nathan Shedroff

Often, when I speak with interaction designers and usability professionals, I hear the same question, “I work on websites and interfaces. What impact can I have on sustainability?”

While I understand that sustainability is often cast in terms of environmental issues, its true meaning goes beyond just these concerns. Sustainability refers to sustainable social, cultural, and financial systems, and not just environmental systems. None of these systems is more important than the others and, as such, we need to consider how the things we make and use affect them.

The world of interaction and interfaces may not, at first glance, make as much impact on materials and energy as, say, automobiles, mobile phones, or housing, but from a systems perspective, interfaces and interactive design touch everything.

As a usability professional, the things you work on, even a website, still must be used through some physical device. The problem is that we too often forget this in our research, ideation, and evaluation.

So, what kind of impact can we have? Plenty—and here’s how:

The first thing we can do is to make sure that the things we help create are usable, useful, and desirable. These criteria are almost fully within our control. For sure, we’re not the only ones responsible, but this is our profession and we pride ourselves on it. The more usable something is, the less likely it will be discarded for something else simply because it doesn’t work correctly. That prevents another device from being built to take its place simply because someone couldn’t make it work the way they needed it. That has an enormous impact on material and energy use.

In addition, the more usable something is, the longer it will meet people’s needs—especially if it’s designed to be expanded, customized, or upgraded to extend its lifetime. Designing products to last longer is another way to prevent unnecessary duplication of devices and saves material and energy (not to mention waste). Remember, 50-80 percent of the material and energy impact of many physical products occurs during manufacturing and distribution, and is already spent by the time we buy and use it.

Interaction design also has an impact on the ability to refocus the value of products into services. There was a time when physical objects were bought to hear music or watch video. Digital content still uses energy, but they use far less than the total cost associated with producing and distributing records, tapes, and CDs. We won’t be able to digitize all content or every device, but there was a time when we didn’t envision records, tapes, or books being digital either. Future technology will continue to surprise us.

Turning products into services is a process of researching and reimagining the value customers ultimately need. (We don’t actually need drills, for instance, we need holes where and when we want them). The process for doing this well relies on discovering real needs and value, and service design to deliver that value in meaningful, sustainable, and viable ways. Most services still need physical products or artifacts in their service flows (you can’t have a car rental or car share service without cars), but these products are often used more efficiently, maintained better, last longer, and require fewer units to render the same service than if everyone owned their own.

Design and user research can have even more impact than merely reducing the amount of energy and materials required to do something. The techniques of ethnographic research are required to understand customer requirements at the more esoteric, but more powerful levels, such as emotions, values, and meaning. Quantitative methods, like those long used in traditional market research are terrible at identifying, understanding, and communicating these. Yet, these are the basis for the more powerful relationships between people and between people and the objects in their lives. This, then, is the key to reshaping what we build and not merely how we build it. It can identify better offerings (whether product, service, event, or experience) and satisfy our customers (or users or participants or audience) in ways far more powerful than mere price and performance. This may even be the path toward a more sustainable, post-consumer future since (and this is merely conjecture based on my own anecdotal evidence) people who have more meaning in their lives don’t need to constantly buy things to fill the void of having little. We now have models and processes for doing just this, but this is just the start.

Usability and interaction professionals have developed unique skills to understand social and cultural impacts (or we employ those who do, like anthropologists and ethnographers). These understandings can help us build solutions that better honor all people’s needs (accessibility, for example is already a great start toward this), and even identify when we’re working on projects or for clients who aren’t treating these needs sustainably. This means that we may find hard choices when we look through the sustainability lens. Sustainability is a vision for meeting today’s needs without compromising our ability to meet those of tomorrow, but it’s not easy to see across both distances and we will, undoubtedly, make trade-offs and even mistakes along the way.

Many of us already make choices about which projects to take, but we may find ourselves questioning the motives of our clients and their projects in new terms as well. Consider the software “games” Hewlett-Packard experimented with just a few years ago, the purpose of which was to persuade users to print more paper. At the same time that some groups within the company were devising revolutionary take-back programs to recycle ink, cartridges, and equipment, others in the same company were devising ways to get people to waste ink and paper. Would you have worked on that project if cast in this light?

Undoubtedly, there will be more choices we uncover as we use this lens on our personal and professional lives, but it’s a perspective sorely needed and, ultimately, richly rewarding. Where we can affect use and usability, we can choose to improve both. Where we affect desirability, we can choose which products are worthy of our time and skills. Where we interface with peers who make the physical device decisions that our interfaces interact through (and the “hard” and “soft” interfaces have never been more tightly intertwined), we can advocate for sustainability in all its meanings.

Xeriscaping: Sustainability in Practice

By Martha K. Sippel

I wonder whether what I’m doing at the moment is the greenest thing I can do? How do I make the best choices to be as sustainable as possible? And, as one person, does it really matter what I do on this planet?

I do everything possible to lead a green life. I recycle. I leave the grass clippings on the lawn, water only when necessary, and would compost if I could without attracting the “varmints” from the open space behind our house (I’m still working on this). My husband says, “Let me put the plant in the ground and be done with it,” whereas I’m contemplating the most appropriate location for that very plant.

In most of North America, over 50 percent of residential water used is applied to landscape and lawns. Xeriscape (using drought-tolerant plants that require minimal water to survive and thrive) can reduce landscape water use by 50-75 percent. This does not mean using only cactus (cactus generally don’t survive our winters outside) or all hardscape (rock or hard surfaces). It means being practical in what you do outside, too.

I am an avid xeriscape gardener. We live in an arid climate in Colorado, a blessing because we can put our wet bath and kitchen towels back on the towel rack and they’re usually dry before we need them again. A curse because we have to regularly water our garden and our lawn to keep it alive.

Originally coined by the Denver Water Department, the term xeriscape was developed for drought-afflicted areas. However, water is now considered an expensive and limited resource in many areas, so today xeriscape principles have a wider appeal. All residential or commercial landscaping projects can benefit from this alternative.
Xeriscapes portray many visions—one can achieve almost any landscaping style applying these principles to all or part of a yard in any geographic region. You may say, “We have plenty of water, so we don’t need to worry about that.” To that I say, “You have drier and wetter parts of your yard.”

Xeriscape landscaping incorporates seven basic principles that save water: planning and design; soil improvement; appropriate plant selection; practical turf areas; efficient irrigation; mulching; and appropriate maintenance.

The benefits of Xeriscape include saving water, less maintenance, using fewer or no fertilizers or pesticides, improving property value, and providing a pollution-free wildlife habitat. To save water, we incorporated drought-tolerant fescue blend grass in our backyard and we employ the pollution free aspect for our yard and the environment.

Our wildlife shortlist includes hummingbirds, bluebirds, finches, butterflies, and deer (luckily the deer haven’t yet discovered our garden). I find that our yard now requires less work and water to maintain, so I see the benefits of saving both time and water. I’m finally enjoying moving or switching plants to more appropriate areas (instead of only buying plants).

So what is best? How do you reduce your carbon footprint? What other things can we do? These are questions I constantly ask myself and some of my friends. What ideas do you have about how we can be as green as possible in the usability and technical communication fields? What tricks of the trade do you use?

Accidental Sustainability

By Elizabeth Rosenzweig

The idea is that good usability can help create a more sustainable world by creating products that use recycled components, work to insure a better use of resources, or are so delightful to use that they don’t have to be replaced as often.

A good example of this is my new cell phone. I can actually say, “I really love using it.” This surprised me, since I haven’t even liked any of my previous phones. They were functional, but not very usable. Over the years, they did get more attractive, but the functionality never got me excited. I always opted for a simple phone and just used it for making calls. I never thought I would use the Internet on my phone or any other applications, partly because they didn’t work well.

This all changed with my new phone. Not only do I find it visually attractive in it’s purple flip design, but it gives me email, the Internet, and GPS with a relatively easy user interface. The camera is high resolution, and the phone provides me with a full keyboard that is big enough to type, but small enough that when it flips, I can put it in my pocket. I really love it.

The GPS can save addresses and tell me directions while I drive or walk, like any good GPS application. I find myself anticipating my need for directions by entering addresses before I start driving.

My new phone has improved my life by making many everyday activities easier and more fun. I love my phone and will use it forever, I promise.

My new phone is a great example of what I call “accidental sustainability.” The product is so well designed, so easy to use, that I have no reason to replace it. I do not need to worry about planned obsolescence and other reasons to get a new phone every year.

The problem with badly designed products is that they need to be replaced, which means that precious resources are used up in developing and producing them. Not only that, these badly designed products overload our landfills, creating more trash that will be around for many years to come.

Accidental sustainability is creating useful, satisfying, meaningful products and services people don’t need to replace and help conserve our resources.

Coping Daily with Green Ethics

By Joe Bugental

In a world where Chevron Oil and the utility companies tell me to use less of their product, classic marketing has gone mad, and some challenges to my earth-first consciousness are inevitable.

My gardeners want me to water the yard in the morning to promote plant nourishment during the heat of the day, but the water department insists that we use their resource only in the evening, when soaking will last longer. Who’s right? Must I choose between living things, which improve the carbon feedback loop, and water conservation?

The only time I really use our green (“compostable”) trash barrel is after working in the yard. Our mayor in San Francisco wants us to put everything possible in that barrel, but maintaining a week’s worth of table scraps invites very unpleasant, if not highly toxic, fumes in the garage. So I still use my garbage disposal for much of the potential compost, and since the disposal runs on electricity, I’m knowingly committing a double transgression—but in the privacy of my own home and among consenting adults, thank God.

Three trash bins go out to the curb every week: the green one, a blue one for most papers and plastics (but not in combination with each other, as in milk cartons), and a black one for everything else. Well, not quite. Foam rubber and Styrofoam are technically not permitted in any of the above, but the collection people usually overlook their presence in the black bin. So I’m occasionally complicit in a hideous landfill infraction.

My polyurethane foam roof is excellent for insulation, thus reducing my oil-and-gas consumption, but it has a half-life somewhere between here and eternity. How will future generations cope with it when my little house is listed as a teardown?

I love to eat locally grown produce, and I’m fortunate to have so many good things year-round here in California, but: (a) some healthy things just aren’t available locally, and (b) our farmers are said to use more than their fair share of the water supply.

Water again: the city-owned utility tells us to wash only large loads of dishes or laundry (to use less water for more cleaning), but the repair people say the appliances will last longer with more frequent smaller loads. Which do I want most to save, the water or the appliances themselves?

My CFL bulbs are great despite their incessant humming noises, and I’m told that newer models don’t hum. I won’t replace the current models however, because their long life is one of the reasons I installed them.

I prefer public transportation to driving whenever possible, but the municipal transportation department, facing budget deficits like everyone else, keeps raising the fare. It is possible driving will become cheaper, thus more attractive, in the future.

I rarely use a paper towel any more, but that practice increases the number of fabric towels in the laundry. More water, more detergent, more fabric softener—where is the net gain?

Is there a solution to all these dilemmas? Yes, but it’s quite huge. The current situation exists because I, and the society I’m a part of, am plugging in a myriad of small fixes to specific problems without an overall plan that finds out how each part sustains the whole. It’s not unlike a corporate website where every corporate department designs its own page or subsite, producing major incongruities for a web surfing visitor to the corporate site.

And, just as we’re beginning to meet the challenges of good design for the whole user experience, the current conundrums of living sustainably will only be resolved when wiser professionals step back and look at the big picture. UX


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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4, 2009.

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