Last Updated on July 19, 2023 by Freddy G. C.

UX (user experience) design and sustainability are two concepts that you may think have little overlap.

After all, UX design is chiefly concerned with creating seamless interactions between users and products, whereas sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

 How UX Design Can Help Build A Sustainable Future

How could they be related?

And how can the former possibly help to achieve the latter?

Well, in an increasingly environmentally and socially conscious world (awareness of which has been somewhat heightened by a global pandemic and news of an onrushing climate crisis), website UX designers can become champions of sustainability in a variety of ways.

In recent years, the term Green UX has emerged to describe the practice of putting sustainability at the forefront of a UX strategy.

But how exactly can UX design help to create a sustainable future?

We’ll look at just some of the ways in this article.

By thinking ‘mobile-first’

Today, almost 55% of internet traffic comes from a mobile device (in more mobile-reliant markets such as Africa and Asia, this percentage is even higher) so there’s more than one reason to focus on the mobile experience first when designing your UX.

Aside from lower costs and the increased number of marketing opportunities that come with mobile usage, there are undeniable sustainability advantages to encouraging more users to interact with your site through a mobile or an app: every time a page loads, energy is consumed, and the simplified interactions we get with our mobile devices could help to reduce this.

Mobile experiences are designed to be streamlined, with simplified layouts, faster loading times, and a focus only on essential functions, reducing the energy consumption associated with each user interaction.

Often with easier-to-use interfaces (when compared with desktops or laptops, for example), mobile interactions tend to be speedier, with fewer clicks, fewer page visits, and an expeditious checkout process reducing the time and resources that get eaten uploading content.

By designing user experiences with mobile in mind, you’re not only future-proofing against an increasingly mobile-centric user base, but you’re prioritizing sustainability by encouraging a less energy-draining interaction.

By minimizing user interactions

Many think the key to user engagement is keeping visitors on your website for longer, but that’s not always the case (the time on page metric in Google Analytics is now seen as somewhat outdated).

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An extended visit with a high number of page views might actually indicate a user struggling to locate what they’re looking for.

This is also why the bounce rate metric is questionably useful.

If you arrive, find a landing page that perfectly fulfills your needs, then leave immediately after, which can be misinterpreted as a sign of a bad page.

Furthermore, if we’re encouraging users to spend more time on our sites (visiting more pages and loading more content) we’re potentially increasing the energy consumed each time a user interacts with us.

While we inevitably want our users to engage and interact with our content, we also want them to be able to navigate that content seamlessly, so that they can quickly and easily find the solutions they’re looking for.

If the user experience is overcomplicated, users are likely to spend more time trawling through pages on your site, adding a burden of multiple page loads.

By designing a seamless customer journey, developing simple page layouts, and building a clear and intuitive navigation menu, a user can theoretically navigate to a solution using fewer clicks, meaning interactions are likely to be more fruitful and less energy-consuming.

By improving computational efficiency

We’ve touched on page load times being a key factor, but there are multiple elements related to site performance that can help to create a more sustainable browsing environment for your users.

Your site’s performance is often a clear differentiator between an effective and an inept user experience (since sluggish loading times or broken URLs are likely to cause users to abandon their visit), but a highly optimized site can also reduce the energy expended when users interact, as load times are reduced and functions are streamlined.

Using a tool like GTMetrix to evaluate your site speed and provide an overall performance grade will help you to focus on site performance and optimize where necessary.

And if you’re still running on a local server, migrating to a scalable platform-as-a-service hosting solution like Cloudways will provide a huge sustainability improvement due to the greater efficiency of cloud infrastructure (remarkably, it can reduce carbon emissions by up to 88%).

Since the cloud also delivers major performance improvements, it’s an easy move to make.

And then there’s the matter of how much data you’re caching or using.

Are you storing more cached data than you need?

How much space is going towards the upkeep of files that are rarely (if ever) used?

Is there leftover code in the source of your website that gets included in every page render without producing any visible differences?

Trim the fat wherever you can.

By implementing a ‘mindful’ design

A mindful design might sound like a loose concept, but encouraging mindfulness through UX can be important in promoting sustainability.

In UX, mindful design is about finding the sweet spot between attention and awareness, so that users are fully engaged in your content while remaining ‘present’.

For instance, if a user is glued to their smartphone and incessantly scrolling through an app or a social media feed, this might be viewed as a lack of mindfulness (not necessarily a healthy interaction between the user and their device).

What’s more, it’s likely this protracted but purposeless interaction puts an unnecessary strain on bandwidth due to the continual loading of content.

Due to this, while user engagement is the primary goal of a UX designer, we want to encourage more healthy (and more productive) interactions with our websites and our apps — not just for sustainability but for the obvious benefits to our physical and mental health.

The average person touches their phone over 2,600 times a day, so a break from ‘screen time’ every now and again is advised, not only to encourage more outdoor exercise but more face-to-face interaction; it can also help improve our sleep and, therefore, our moods.

And if we’re encouraging mindful interaction through UX design (and therefore reducing the time spent scrolling through pages) we can reduce the energy consumption of our devices, too.

By promoting sustainability through content

We’ve focused so far on the more technical aspects of your UX strategy, but don’t forget that your content itself is an invaluable resource when it comes to promoting sustainability on your website.

While the primary purpose of your content is to engage and inspire, remember that you also have an opportunity to educate your audience.

If your brand has sustainability as a key pillar of its strategy (and you’re participating in sustainability initiatives such as using non-harmful ingredients or materials, working with local suppliers, using recyclable packaging, or supporting environmental causes) don’t be afraid to shout about it.

Take the outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, for example, the brand has taken to highlighting environmental initiatives across its content to display its commitment to sustainability, like its Worn Wear program.

Worn Wear encourages the repair and reuse of garments to reduce waste, and its clothing ranges are made using organic practices.

This approach not only builds trust by encouraging eco-conscious customers to buy into the brand, but it educates website visitors on the importance of sustainable practices, making the company a key ally in the fight against an impending climate crisis.

Wrapping it up

To conclude, then, it’s clear that the concepts of UX design and sustainability aren’t as far apart as we might’ve thought.

By encouraging healthier, more seamless interactions with our websites and apps (and by promoting sustainability in our content), a sustainability-led UX design strategy can help to reduce energy consumption and educate consumers to make more sustainable choices.

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