Design, data, sustainability and people

photo: dan paluska (cc: attrib 2.0 gen)

During a recent trawl for blogs on sustainability and service design, I came across an old post on sustainability and user experience that, I believe, still has good bones.

Alexa Andrezejeski’s Adaptive Path post, from early 2008, addresses the question of what UX and sustainability have to do with each other. She writes about a discussion at Adaptive Path, which came up with a set of principles, including:

Experience is closely tied to sustainable behavior: People act un-sustainably because it’s often much easier or results in a better experience than doing otherwise….

Make sustainable experiences more compelling than the alternatives….
Understand and appeal to people’s motivations, values and aspirations…
Harness the power of information to help people make better decisions….
Promote a service-mindset vs. a product-mindset…
Communicate the business value of sustainability….

Her post ends with an expression of frustration with the difficulty of finding or creating opportunities to put this awareness into practice in aid of furthering sustainability.

Since 2008, people’s consciousness of the issues has intensified, as has awareness of increasing climate chaos. So there is greater openness to the need for services/products that apply the congruence of user experience and sustainability. And even consideration of the one in the development of the other.

But the future is uneven, isn’t it? As an example, see the problems around the launch of  PG&E smart meters in California, written about by Tom Raftery (PG&E smart meter communication failure – lessons for the rest of us).

Consumers who adopted smart meters faced significantly higher bills, without a corresponding increase in electricity use, resulting in a class action lawsuit against PG&E. In his Green Monk post, Raftery addresses the issues created by poor user experience and service design at the forefront of innovation intended to change individual behaviour in the aid of sustainability:

There are a number of problems here – all to do with transparency and communication.

If, as PG&E say, this is because of “customers not shifting demand to off-peak times when rates are lower”, then it follows that PG&E have either failed to communicate the value of shifting demand or the time when rates are lower….

It seems that PG&E’s smart grid rollout is woefully under-resourced at the back-end. What PG&E should have is a system where customers can see their electrical consumption in real-time (on their phone, on their computer, on their in-home display, etc.) but also, in the same way that credit card companies contact me if purchasing goes out of my normal pattern, PG&E should have a system in place to contact customers whose bills are going seriously out of kilter. Preferably a system which alerts people in realtime if they are consuming too much electricity when the price is high, through their in-home display, via sms,Twitter DM, whatever.

Since 2008, there is much more sustainability-related data available, and many more opportunities to bring that data to individuals wherever they are at the time.

Four vectors of development that UX/service designers and developers are pursuing are:

  • connecting to this data (both real time and historic),
  • making it meaningful to individuals,
  • turning that meaning into motivation, and
  • showing the economic and business sense behind these developments.

Like the arguments presented in the Adaptive Path post, which pre-dates current levels of connectedness and urgency, these are basic tenets to advance sustainable user experience and user-friendly sustainability. We need both.