Digital product design towards sustainability and circular economy

Every product relies on physical resources to exist. Digital products are no exception; even if you can’t touch the digital world, it has a natural and fast-growing environmental impact on our planet.

Egoitz Tellitu
Guzmán Bermejo
Claudia Urquijo
Sara Morillo

There is a unique creative opportunity for product designers to boost the sustainable advantages of the dematerialisation of products. But this won’t happen by chance; it requires applying specific digital sustainability knowledge, adopting new tools, and evolving design methods. As designers, it’s in our hands to enable companies to deliver not just desirable and profitable products, but also humanity-centric and environmentally sensible ones.

The Internet's impact is physical, and so is the impact of your designs

The environment is highly affected by the infrastructure and the usage of the Internet. If it were a country, it would be the fourth most polluting. All the designed interactions, like sending a message or an email, playing a podcast or a TV show, reacting to an Instagram post or ordering food online, consume energy and create an environmental deterioration known as a digital footprint.

The Internet and all digital products are constructed with two fundamental elements: computation and data. Since the Internet was born, the generated data has grown exponentially yearly. More data was created between 2017 and 2019 than in the rest of human history. As internet connections get faster and devices have more processing capabilities, the products produced are heavier and collect more data from users than ever.

But since everything digitally displayed and consumed is data, the data is stored on land, which requires data centres. Storage, transmission, consumption, and data creation require energy, which has an environmental impact. So, in the end, digital products are incredibly physical.

Sustainability as a design enhancer

Physical products have a more visible footprint. Designers of such products are increasingly involved in the evolution towards a circular economy. But when digital product designers have to create something sustainable, they face a terrain of uncertainty and fictional intangibility that can turn into paralysis.

Design is about balancing user desirability, business viability and technical feasibility. Sustainability has often been added to the Venn diagram representing these three lenses, but is it really a must-have to ensure the success of a new product? Probably not, but when you design with sustainability in mind, you develop energy-efficient products that technically improve the performance and optimisation of the product. For example, lighter technology makes things faster while enhancing user satisfaction. So, a more sustainable design indirectly means a more efficient, desirable, and profitable outcome.

Sustainability and the business outcomes achieved with it are especially relevant if you consider the low success rates of digital products. 77% of downloaded apps go unused after 3 days, and 90% after a month. Designing, developing, communicating, and downloading these products requires a considerable amount of effort and energy that is profoundly wasted. Creating more apps and adding more data is not a sustainable and profitable strategy. The challenge of digital products is how to achieve more using less, and this is where you need a strong digital design partner to help you grow.

Sustainable digital product design will improve your company

We're often asked to collaborate with companies to develop new environmentally friendly products, services, and business models.

Let's look at sustainable soap for a minute. In what kind of packaging do you visualise it? Most likely, in a sustainable container of some sort. The same should happen when you create digital products and services. When a company develops a new digital product to promote the circular economy, it should align the product with its purpose.

But regardless of your level of commitment and sustainability roadmaps, we can collaborate with you and add value to your journey from a sustainable design perspective.

Sustainable digital product design happens at every stage of the design process

Sustainability can be applied in each part of the digital product design process: from research and problem understanding to testing and iterating to conceptualisation. This requires approaching any challenge with a sustainability lens and applying systems thinking to broaden your perspective and adapt design methodology accordingly. Sustainable design also requires a specific knowledge of sustainability and product development that can be obtained by working with product teams and sustainable development experts.

There's a lot of opportunity to design with sustainability in mind. Here are a few examples:

Designing information architectures and user flows that enable users to accomplish their goals quickly. Noisy content, redundant steps and extra unnecessary complexity not only slow and hinds the task achievement while deteriorating the user's experience but require more load and collection of data.

As designers, we make sure not to add dark patterns. Similarly, we should nudge users down the right path by setting the default options as the most sustainable ones. For example, when deciding the shipping address of an online purchase, you can promote the delivery to a hub station instead of a home address. Likewise, you can propose as default reusable packaging instead of new, even if it's recycled.

As said, products are formed by data and data is displayed and shaped by text, audio, image, video, and colour. So, if you can achieve the same result using a less consuming resource, you should go for it. For example, you can replace videos with images and images with illustrations. You can convert your media content to the most energy-efficient format while preserving quality.

When choosing the interface elements like colours and typography, you're also determining the level of impact the product will have. For example, in OLED displays, black is the less polluting colour, while white is the most polluting as it requires more data to be displayed in a screen pixel. This is because each colour has its own energy consumption, which aggregates through every pixel and device. With typography, system fonts are already loaded on users' devices, so they don't need to be downloaded again, saving more energy.

Digital sustainability is a creative and business opportunity to bring to life more meaningful initiatives and deliver a more significant impact through design. But methods aside, new tools are also needed to enable designers and companies to make more well-informed sustainable decisions.

We’re in the process of creating a new experimental tool to make it easier for designers to get used to sustainability roadmaps. But, until then, if you're interested in having a chat to figure out how we can help you create or evolve a more sustainable future, digital business, or product, we'd love to hear from you.