What does sustainable interaction look like?

In the past few years the design community has taken sustainability from a mere buzzword into a call for action. Eli Belvis, Tony Fry and Cooper's own David Fore have all championed the idea that the practice of interaction design must promote and encourage sustainable decision-making. The Designer's Accord has emerged as a mandate to turn the the goodwill into commitment and a plan of action, improving the role of design in sustainability.

This is all good, it's all needed, but we also need to get down to brass tacks. A cursory survey of the internets reveals a hunger for actionable discourse about sustainable interaction design. What does sustainable interaction design look like in the wild? What does sustainable mean when it comes to designing software? What are practical design choices that encourage sustainable behavior on the part of the end user of software?

So what might this tactical, on the ground design look like? I'll venture a few possibilities:

Make the hidden visible

Surfacing previously hidden data about the impact of people's behavior can encourage and empower people to make different choices.

Google Maps now includes a cost estimate when it delivers public transit directions. The cost of driving is compared to the cost of taking public transportation.

Presenting this information when someone is still in the planning stages increases their ability to make a more informed, and perhaps eco-friendly decision. By including this, Google has taken a great first step, and they could take it further. Instead of burying the cost comparison on the public transportation page, which is used primarily by people already considering an alternative mode of transportation, include the cost comparison on every set of driving directions. In this way all users could begin to consider the savings of using alternative ways of getting around.

Interaction designers are in a position to advocate for the gathering and display of data which may lead to behavioral change. Look for opportunities to make comparisons of cost, or of impact.

Default the more sustainable choice

An overwhelming majority of the time, people go along with whatever is the default choice. It is easier to do nothing, than to make a choice. Use people's complacency to help them take more sustainable action.

Google has an opportunity to default the more sustainable choice when people use it to look for local businesses.

The default sort order should be that more sustainable businesses are listed higher in the search results. Many users will not change the sort order and make a selection within the first few pages of search results, resulting in increased support for sustainable businesses.

While seemingly small, design decisions like this can have significant cumulative effect. Making conscious decisions about default settings or sorting orders is a good start, but do you have more time or budget? Spend a few design cycles reviewing your assumptions, identify where choices and actions could be better put in the context of sustainability. For example, what if Amazon helped you to visualize your shipping options in terms of the tax on the environment?

Educate where possible

Feedback is pervasive in software, so find opportunities to make it about the bigger picture; include feedback about the larger impact of actions, not just the immediate one. Sometimes it is how all the little things add up. Provide an interface which gives users a summary of the impact of seemingly isolated and harmless activities.

When users plan to get directions using Google Maps, they could take the opportunity to save the search as a trip. At the end of the year, the ecological impact of all of the trips which they planned using Google Maps could be calculated and displayed in a summary screen. Dopplr does something like this with their Personal Annual Report and it provides significant insight into an individual's travel impact.


Identify opportunities to reinforce sustainable behavior

Google Map users could be shown how much their choices to take public transportation saved in money and CO2. Providing feedback that educates users about the deeper impact of their decisions supplies people with the information they need to make better choices in the future.

Are there examples sustainable interaction design are you familiar with? What other practical ways can we as a practice use design to promote more sustainable behavior?


Susty Apps
Great analysis. I particularly love the data visualization of DOPPLR. And I remember the first time I used Google Transit and saw those cost comparison to car (when gas was ~$5) it really drove home the point. Tweeted your column on @sustyapps.
Faith Peterson
Well done. Seems useful to start to catalog some principles that can become the benchmark of good practice. Tweeted on @faithpeterson.
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