World Usability Day LogoI was delighted when the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) chose sustainability as the theme for World Usability Day 2009 (WUD 2009).  They even quoted the revised human-centred design standard, which I helped to draft, explaining how human-centred design can have a positive impact on sustainability.

Recently we have been talking to some key people working in design and usability about how sustainability might influence design in the future.

Here I summarise some of the main themes that have emerged. We will be sharing the highlights of the interviews as a podcast to celebrate World Usability Day.

Human centred design can help promote sustainability

The sustainability theme is not completely my fault.  But I was responsible for persuading my colleagues on the committee revising the human-centred design standard ISO 9241-210 to add the clause on sustainability, which was picked up by the UPA. 

Briefly, the standard explains how human-centred design can contribute to solving economic, social and environmental concerns:

  • Economically, anything designed to match a users’ needs and abilities is more likely to be commercially successful.
  • Socially products designed using a human-centred approach are better for the wellbeing and engagement of their users, including users with disabilities.
  • Environmentally, human-centred design promotes a whole life cycle approach to design, including the longer term implications for users and therefore for the environment.

Professor Ben Shneiderman, the user-interface guru from the University of Maryland, puts it another way:

There are two ways in which sustainability and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) cross over.  The obvious one is in the design of technologies, whether it’s a power metre in your home or a display in your car that makes you more aware of your own energy consumption.  And there is good evidence that those who are more aware of their consumption will change their patterns. 

The second way in which I think HCI bridges is through the social networks and media, for making people more aware of their energy consumption patterns.  There is no particular device or technology, but we know that the theories of social contingent tell us that if I’m proud of my energy saving and I let people know in my social network, that idea will spread and spread and so people will change their behaviours.

Sustainability in packaging design is now mainstream

Packaging is one area which has evolved dramatically over the last few years, and sustainability is now a mainstream concern.  Excessive packaging is seen increasingly as negative, not only for retailers and consumers, but also for the environment.

Or as Daniel Liden – Senior Designer at Chris Lefteri Design puts it:

Excessive packaging is really bad but you also have to understand I think that it’s a really crucial element of product design, which you can’t do without.  But there are still a lot of things that you can do within packaging to make it better.

Consumers are concerned but sceptical

Consumers now are more powerful than ever, the internet and social media have given them to tools to discover and share information more effectively than ever before. 

However, as Liz Edwards, Home Editor of the Consumers Association explains:

We know that people want very clear, substantiated evidence based green claims, and Green Wash so far, has really really hit peoples trust of green claims. So the first thing that needs to happen is companies need to stop exaggerating their green claims, because consumers are incredibly cynical already about them.  What we need are accurate, evidence based green claims, in order to increase the amount of trust that consumers place in them.

Companies that act now will gain competitive advantage

One of the interesting things about sustainability is that it is currently seen as an option, something good companies promote, but I think increasingly in the future there will be legislation to enforce suppliers to be more sustainable. Companies which start to view sustainability as integral to their business and their design process now will be ahead of the game when the legislation is enforced.

John Thackara, Director, Doors of Perception and currently senior advisor on sustainability to the UK Design Council puts it like this:

I think companies that take the initiative in revealing the life stories of a product will be at a huge advantage in the future.  The usability community could take the initiative and say that pretty soon now the total lifecycle of the product will be part of the information that the person buying it or procuring it will want to have.  Where it came from, what materials were used to make it, how much energy it consumes, what happens to it when you no longer need it, all these things like recycling or reusing, they could be taken seriously before the client asks for it.

World Usability Day reminds us that human-centred design provides a unique opportunity to change our approach to design and face up to our social, economic and environmental responsibilities.  We’d love to hear what you think too, following the podcast there will be a short survey which we will analyse and report back on later this year.