Beautiful Monsters: With such a late start, we best get moving

From our position at the confluence of human desire, technology, and business, interaction designers can make a tremendously positive—or negative—impact on the biggest issues facing us today: the sustainability of commerce, human societies, and natural systems. Despite these opportunities, software makers are discouraged from thinking outside the aspect ratio of the computer ’s monitor.


This is the first in a series of articles intended to serve as an ongoing conversation about how interaction designers can move the industry toward an Ecosystem Centered Design to improve our fortunes, our relationships, and the health of our planet.

With such a late start, we best get moving

I write this as smoke obscures the sun over most of Northern California, the result of an unprecedented number of early-season wildfires that have charred hundreds of miles of land. We are visited by flames because we’re in the midst of the worst drought in decades, and because we experienced thousands of dry lightning strikes in a period of days, something as common in these parts as Leprechauns and snow leopards.

These 1,700 fires have created a weeks-long pall of smoke that has forced everyone indoors… not just the very young and the very old, but everyone.

To battle the flames, firefighters are draining our reservoirs’ stores of precious water, which couldn’t come at a worse time, considering we are rationing water in several areas of the state. Makes you wonder what will happen next time you open the tap. Meanwhile, there aren’t enough folks and equipment to fight all the fires, so many are being allowed to burn unchecked.

Weird weather or harbinger of climatological chaos? That’s the question that NASA climate scientist James Hansen was asked in last week’s congressional testimony. His conclusion was that the time for debate over such questions has long since passed: we are in the midst of a “planetary emergency” that requires everyone’s attention, ingenuity, and good will. Now. Not whenever we get around to it after we have finished what we’re doing. Now.

Last week Ford Motor Company announced the death of the SUV. Turns out that there’s not an endless supply of cheap gas and piña coladas. The bill is overdue and we need to pay up.

So it’s a propitious time to launch a series about how interaction design can, and must, take into account the social, economic, and environmental ecosystems on which we all depend.

In addition to whatever native wit and well-honed craft any interaction designer may possess, each of us also depends upon some form of User Centered Design (UCD) to create products, services, and systems that are hospitable and appealing. Placing human concerns at the center of the design of software-enabled systems has been quite a trick, given that doing so has meant moving technology to a role that is subservient to human needs. But this Copernican shift has led not only to better products, but better process also. That’s because doing interaction design in the proper way also provides everyone greater visibility into and appropriate influence over the development, use, and impact of the systems that are designed.

The problem comes when UCD is taken too literally, for it can also promote a myopia that blurs what’s outside the immediate reach of individuals, preventing us from clearly seeing the inter-woven social, industrial, and environmental ecologies within which people live and companies exist. This must change. Whether interaction designers hear it or not, we are being called upon to address the broader ecological contexts of the companies that build what we design, and those who use the product of our labors. It is, therefore, urgent for our design values, methods, and collaboration habits to evolve. Now.

What is called for is an Ecosystem-Centered Design, a shared set of ideas and methods to guide our way toward more sustainable creative endeavors that address vital social, organizational, and environmental influences upon—and consequences of—the creation, use, and retirement of what we design.


Dave, I am very interested in what you are suggesting. However, I'm not very clear on how I can contribute to an Ecosystem-Centered Design. Would you provide an example? Thanks, Seda
Seda, I saw Dave speak about this at the Business to Buttons conference recently and he gave an interesting example. Nicholas Carr did a calculation that is meant to demonstrate that "your average Second Life avatar consumes about as much electricity as your average Brazilian." That's one example of how choices in design of computer systems/software could have an impact ecologically. I'd love to hear more! Carolyn Manifest Digital
Len Schultz
David, I would love to hear more on your thoughts for what Ecosystem Centered Design is and how it can help...
Petteri Hiisilä
I've been doing design work for an industrial appliance lately. These appliances control monster machines that consume 1.0 to 2.0 megawatts of power. In a typical factory, the machine is run by 1-3 trained operators. In sleep mode the machine still consumes about as much energy as a small village. (In fact, we couldn't start our prototype early this summer, because it would have shut down this part of the town!) If a trained operator leaves, an inefficient or complex software behavior can waste ernomous amounts of energy in those three-to-six months it takes to become a skilled operator. Also, if this monster machine can't get enough raw material because the forklift driver can't find what he's looking for in the warehouse, the Ecosystem is screwed. Here's an interesting article about "petabyte age" and how technology can help: Looking forward for part two! Petteri
Thanks so much for bringing environmental efforts into the realm of UCD. If tomorrow every car ran on water and every home was powered by the sun, our environmental predicaments would (eventually) remain unresolved. As long as we humans are dissatisfied with our living environment and we remain disconnected from nature and other people, we will continue to reach for fulfillment elsewhere. That quest for fulfillment manifests itself as limitless travel and endless consumption, but these activities do nothing to satisfy our desires and serve only to turn our natural resources into climate-changing and health-degrading pollution. As designers, our sphere of influence can revolve around improving our connection to one another and the natural world. Behaviorally, fulfillment can come from the journey through a scenario, discovering these connections along the way, and recognizing that hyper-efficiency is not always the underlying goal. Viscerally, we can mimic nature’s curved lines and lumpy textures in our products. As designers (and as a culture) we need to look beyond issues of energy consumption and ask why we feel the need to engage in that energy-consuming activity in the first place. It is obvious through our activities that we humans are constantly searching for fulfillment. What fulfillment niche is that new energy-consuming gadget truly trying to meet? A thorough examination of goals can help elicit these issues and perhaps completely change the direction of the product. This change makes the product even more successful because it brings a bit more fulfillment to our life which subsequently keeps us from searching for it elsewhere.
Rick Ragan

I think this makes sense if you look at what UCD is at the 10,000 foot level. Generally speaking, UCD a way of looking at a (product) problem and evolving a better design to make the users more comfortable and more effective at what they are doing.

Ecology presents us with many problems that need a creative solution, so does economics.

Maybe the subject matter experts, such as the ecologists and the economists, should partner with the UCD experts in order to work towards a sustainable solution in which the various users can all find value.

Ecology and economic people may not often take their ideas out into the real world and work the solutions until all users are satisfied, but UCD people certainly do that.

I think that the biggest challenge would be the conflicting real-world politics from some of the diverse stakeholders. But if the solution is compelling enough, maybe another expert, the marketing people, could team with the SMEs and UCD people to sell the solution.

Pat Fleck
This article resonated with me like none other in a long time. I’m sure there will be much debate about what Eco-Design is, but why don’t we start by using some common sense? For example, I was printing out some online order confirmations from Dell the other day and almost half of each page was black background with white text. Yes, it looks pretty on the screen. However, think of how many millions of Dell order confirmations are printed every year and how much toner is needlessly wasted to print them, not to mention electricity to heat and bond the toner, etc. Intelligent design – Eco or otherwise – means anticipating how users are going to “consume” that design and what the ramifications are of that consumption. Companies should think twice before inflicting wasteful design upon society.
I agree with everyone's comments above. However, as a software designer, I would like to know whether there are any principles in place for ECD. This is a very interesting topic to me since I am a strong proponent of Accessibility. However, I have also designed applications that use Ajax and Flex, which do not quite the best solutions for Accessibility. But, from a usability point of view, they solved many problems. These technologies can also be considered ECD-friendly, since they minimize data loading time. So, it seems like we continue to struggle one way or another. I would love to read about any other GUI specific design and/or technology considerations/principles that you, fellow designers, could recommend.

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