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Designing for Sustainability: A Framework for Building Greener Digital Products and Services

By Tim Frick

This is the first in a series on sustainability and the internet, excerpted in parts from Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services (O’Reilly Media, 2016) by Tim Frick. 

The internet is something that over half the world’s population uses every day. Yet few consider that it is well on its way to becoming the world’s largest source of carbon emissions. In this series, we will discuss some potential ways to build a cleaner, greener internet.

Depending on who you ask, there will be between 20 billion and 50 billion devices connected to the internet by the end of this decade, each of them updating, tweeting, sharing, posting, or sending usage data back and forth to servers across the planet. Whether it’s a car self-diagnosing faulty brakes or a chip in your pet’s collar that texts you Fluffy’s location when she has run away, anything that can be assigned an IP address and transmit or receive information will contribute to the huge amount of data we produce. In fact, in the past 12 months alone, according to Salesforce, we have created over 90 percent of all data that ever existed.

The impact of a single tweet is small, less than 0.02 grams of CO2 according to the website Tweetfarts (yes, that’s a thing). But when you multiply those interactions by the number of people on this planet who send, search, and post each day—over half the world’s population, by some calculations with a total of 7.6 billion expected by 2020—that impact becomes much, much larger. When barriers to access disappear, demand rises: Jevons Paradox in action.

Fueled by this growth, the ability to deliver software on a global scale has led to a digital/information economy that in their Information Economy Report the United Nations estimates is in excess of $15 trillion for business-to-business (B2B) and another $1.2 trillion for business-to-consumer (B2C) with both expanding rapidly (the latter faster than the former). And that is just e-commerce. The UN’s report doesn’t take into account the amount of money saved by companies as they undergo the processes of transmaterialization, turning products into services, or dematerialization, converting resource-heavy physical products to their digital equivalents. The financial opportunities also drive huge demand.

Now, couple this exploding demand with the current inefficiency of our digital products and services. The average web page is nearly 2.5 MB in size, despite the fact that many devices will have problems loading that amount of data quickly due to lack of processing power or network availability. In fact, one in four websites are not properly configured to perform well on mobile devices, even though they drive the majority of internet traffic and, starting in 2014, Google penalizes websites that aren’t optimized for mobile in search results. Moving video backgrounds, rotating image carousels, social sharing widgets, excess server requests, and many more commonly requested bells and whistles added to web pages lead to bloated, inefficient sites that waste energy and frustrate users.

Plus, streaming video services already make up more than 70 percent of consumer internet traffic. And virtual reality, which is on the rise, takes up 20 times more bandwidth than fullscreen HD video. This all puts massive energy demands on both front-end devices and back-end servers and data centers. In the U.S., less than 15 percent of this energy comes from renewable sources.

Lack of awareness is a huge roadblock for this issue, but we are not entirely without tools or resources. Some companies, like Carbon Analytics, Third Partners and ClimateCare, have started including digital properties as part of their overall sustainability assessments. Agencies like Manoverboard and DOJO4 have begun folding sustainable design principles into their existing processes for building digital products and services. My company Mightybytes created a free web tool, Ecograder, to help companies better understand how to make their digital products and services more sustainable. With Ecograder reporting, you can improve your own website in four key areas:

  • Search and content strategy: If content is clearly written and optimized for search, users will spend less time (and energy) locating information that is relevant to them. This results in reduced server requests and fewer page elements—like photos and videos which take up a lot of bandwidth—loading unnecessarily. These small energy savings accumulate over time.

  • Performance optimization: Speedy, reliable pages are better for users and better for the environment. Your customers expect to get the content they want instantly. Performance-optimized websites or mobile apps send fewer files and use less processing power on both the server and front-end sides, which of course means they also use less energy. Optimizing your site for performance can also significantly reduce bounce rates and abandoned shopping carts.

  • Design and user experience: Creating a great experience across devices and platforms—including enabling technologies for users with disabilities—is more sustainable. If users have to struggle with design experiences not optimized for their particular devices they waste time and, you guessed it, energy.

  • Green hosting: The servers that store your files require power 24 hours a day, so the single most impactful thing you can do is to use a hosting provider that runs on 100 percent renewable energy.
By following sustainable web design principles, you can reduce the impact of your digital products and services. In this series we will explore each of the above topics in greater detail.

Image credit: Pexels

Tim Frick headshot

Tim Frick is the owner and CEO of Chicago B Corp and digital agency Mightybytes. A regular speaker and conference presenter, Tim is the author of four books, including Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services, from O'Reilly Media. He is also Board President of Climate Ride, which organizes charitable endurance events to raise money for sustainability, active transportation, and environmental causes.

Read more stories by Tim Frick