Designing for A Workforce That Acts More Sustainably – Part 1: Collecting Action Items for Designers

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – May 10, 2011 • Original article

In this series of six articles, I discuss how designers – particularly user interface (UI), user experience (UX), and interaction (IxD) designers – can contribute to making a company's workforce behave more sustainably. In my first article, I looked for fields of action for designers and identified three such fields: (1) commute and travel, (2) resource, energy, and waste management, and (3) organizational issues, in particular the structure, distribution, and management of teams. In these three fields, I looked for possible action items for designers and already identified the following: (1) the design of information and communications technology (ICT) solutions for remote collaboration, and (2) persuasive design or technology. In my second article, I will add two more action items to the list, namely the use of ambient displays for raising awareness of remote colleagues and the replacement of physical objects through virtual, that is, digital ones.

My main concern for this article is, however, to step back and investigate, which sustainability aspects designers can address in their quest for making the behavior of a company's workforce more sustainable. Eventually, I will combine the above-mentioned action fields, the action items, and the sustainability aspects into one scheme – not for creating ultimate confusion, but for gaining a better understanding of the overall direction. In the four concluding articles in this series, I will become more concrete and look at the four above-mentioned action items in more detail.

 

Where Can Designers Have an Impact on Sustainability and How?

As I already indicated, I want to find out which are the aspects in which designers can help improve the sustainability of a workforce's behavior. Nathan Shedroff's book, Design is the Problem, comes in handy for this purpose. In his book, Shedroff not only emphasizes the role of designers in striving for a more sustainable world (read the review), he also offers a guiding scheme consisting of five categories that allows us to classify design and other activities with respect to their impact on sustainability. His categories are: reduce, reuse, recycle, restore/rethink, and process. The first three categories should be self-evident. The "restore" category is different from the first three in highlighting the need to rethink systems in order to gain positive results, rather than merely reduce negative results. Therefore, I prefer the label "rethink" for this category. The "process" category refers to how sustainability can be inserted into existing processes, how to measure results, and how to communicate them. I will skip this category here because it is not in my focus.

How can we use Shedroff's classification for our purposes? I suggest looking at an action field or an activity and considering its main impact on sustainability. To illustrate my suggestions, here are two examples:

  • At the action field level, commute and travel indicate a clear and natural direction: Because of the negative impacts on the environment caused by energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, the main goal here is to reduce both travel and commuting to improve a company's sustainability record.
  • At the activity (or action item) level, the use of ICT for remote collaboration and communication also primarily addresses the reduce aspect: Because ICT solutions allow team members to communicate and cooperate over long distances, they help reduce travel and commuting – and thus support the more global goal that I formulated for the respective action field.

Thus, in these examples, the sustainability goals for design activities are in line with those for the action fields where they are applied.

Applying Shedroff's Scheme to the Action Fields

The example above suggests starting with the action fields when looking for the most relevant sustainability aspects so that we can focus on activities that are in line with the global goals. Therefore, applying Shedroff's categories to the three action fields that I elucidated in my first article, I arrive at the following conclusions:

  • Commute and Travel: Obviously, we are in the "reduce" domain here. The goal is to reduce commuting and travel and thus the negative impacts that these have on the environment (and people).
  • Resource, Energy, and Waste Management: Once again, we are mostly in the "reduce" domain here. With regard to waste management, the "reuse" and "recycle" categories are also applicable, but not so much for UI/UX designers who deal with virtual objects.
  • Organizational Issues (Distribution and Management of Teams): Once more, we are mostly in the "reduce" domain, because organizational decisions can have a direct impact on the workforce's commuting and travel behavior. However, compared with the "commute and travel" action field, we are at a different level here, one that influences sustainability only indirectly. This is definitely not a level on which designers can do a great deal – apart from supporting managers by designing better tools for managing teams and decision support. I therefore will omit this action field from my investigation.

The following table summarizes the relationships between action fields and sustainability aspects:

 
Sustainability Aspect
 Action Field Reduce Recycle Reuse Restore/Rethink Process
Commute & Travel
X
???
???
Resource, Energy, and Waste Management
X
x
x
???
???
Organizational Issues (Distribution and Management of Teams)
(X)
???
???

The "???" in the "restore/rethink" and "process" cells indicate that there is still room for new ideas. Otherwise, the focus seems to lie primarily on reduction. (X) means that the impact is only indirect.

Filling in Action Items (Activities)...

The table above seems to suggest that designers should primarily focus their efforts (or activities) in the respective action fields on reducing something – be it energy or resources consumption, waste production, or carbon footprint – to put the overall sustainability goals into action. As mentioned at the beginning, I already placed two action items on the agenda in my first article that are in line with the "reduction" goal:

  • Remote collaboration and communication: The use of ICT for connecting workers who are distributed over different – often distant – locations.
  • Persuasive design: Design that aims to persuade people to change their behavior in a desired direction.

On the other hand, the designers' efforts would definitely be more effective if they could also address sustainability aspects like recycle, reuse, or even rethink. Admittedly, designers of virtual objects such as software applications have only limited options for impacting aspects that typically involve physical objects and actions (therefore, I put only small "x"'s in the respective cells in the table above). Nonetheless, one option does spring to mind: Replacing physical objects with virtual ones, as has been and is still being done, for example, in the media industry. While designers may not be the technical drivers of such changes, they can influence how people adopt and use new digital technologies. Secondly, there is a design approach that I came across only recently and that may complement ICT solutions for remote collaboration: The use of ambient displays for supporting awareness of distant related people – in this case it would be colleagues in remote locations and not relatives or partners. This approach adds a social and human component to remote collaboration solutions and thus can help improve their acceptance. Thus, I would like to add the following two items to my agenda:

  • Replacing physical objects with virtual (digital) ones.
  • Using ambient displays to support the feeling of awareness of distant colleagues

I place both items in both the "reduce" and "rethink" categories, because they may not only help reduce negative impacts on sustainability, but may also change the way we lead our lives – at home and at work.

Returning to the table above and combining all aspects, I can now replace the "X"'s with possible action items for designers (UI, UX, IxD):

 
Sustainability Aspect
 Action Field
Reduce
Recycle
Reuse
Restore/Rethink
Commute & Travel

Design solutions for remote collaboration & communication (groupware)

Ambient displays for supporting awareness (tangible interfaces)

Persuasive design/technology

Ambient displays for supporting awareness (tangible interfaces)

???

Resource, Energy, and Waste Management

Persuasive design/technology, including resource monitoring

Replacing physical objects with virtual (digital) ones

(Generally: more efficient software solutions)

[Persuasive
design/technology]
[Persuasive
design/technology]

Replacing physical objects with virtual (digital) ones

???

The "[]" entries indicate that designers have little impact in the respective cells. The "???" indicates once again that there is potential in the respective cells for designers to rethink and redesign the procedures and processes that we are currently using.

A Word of Caution

The table above marks just the beginning of an investigation into possible design activities that support the goal of more sustainable behavior in a company's workforce and is by no means complete. However, it can already be used as a starting point, at least for my own investigation into the topic.

 

Final Word

In the four concluding articles, I will start from the table above and look at the four action items for designers that I put on my agenda in more detail. With respect to remote collaboration, I will ask how information and communications technology (ICT) can support the cooperation and coordination of distributed teams, including tele workers. Ambient displays add a social component to remote collaboration by strengthening awareness of colleagues who work in remote locations and vice versa. Persuasive design or technology is an approach to push people's behavior in a certain, desired direction – here, it is to stimulate and permanently anchor more sustainable behavior among the workforce. Finally, replacing physical objects through virtual ones may not only impact the sustainability record of a company positively. It may also change the way we lead our lives – at work and at home.

 

 

References

 

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