User Research
Why User Research Could be a Game Changer in Sustainability
Yesterday was Earth Day 2019. Never before have we been so aware of the impact of humans on our planet. The huge volume of social media posts for Earth Day is proof enough that we’re collectively starting to take note of the need for change. We’re discussing climate breakdown in more detail. Documentaries like those by David Attenborough portray the destruction humans have caused to the planet, with a meek view of just a decade to turn things around. In a time where we desperately need to save resources, it’s something that we certainly need to keep in mind whilst designing and developing products. We should look towards efficient and smart ways to reduce waste of time, energy and effort within the design process. That’s where user research can play an important role.

Designing for sustainability

It is widely agreed that 80% of the environmental impact of a product is determined at the design phase. As such, designers could be one of the biggest contributing factors to saving the environment and reducing the negative impact of human actions on a grander scale. They have the potential influence to ensure that those tools and infrastructures are environmentally sound. There are four main spheres of influence that designers can make an impact on: Reducing pollution in our work processes, understanding internet infrastructure and how design shapes energy use, adding sustainable thinking to product design and working with human behaviours, beliefs and attitudes.

Knowing Your Users To Improve Sustainability in Design

User research can inform design and play a role in the environmental impact of a product in two ways. Firstly, by reducing waste in the building of unnecessary products that people do not want. Secondly, by including environmental and sustainable aspects in user research practice, to seek information on how good design could reduce waste.

1. Effective User Research To Reduce Wasted Resources

Good quality user research, can save businesses effort, time and resources that are otherwise wasted in producing products that people do not want or need.
Related: Find out more about Snap Out’s user research services
Through understanding the context of a product’s use and building empathy with the user, products can be designed and tested before they are mass produced, also reducing resources and environmental impact before scaling a product. Without user research or design-thinking — “an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding” (Interaction Design Foundation) — there is more waste in the long term. Effective user research provides context and information about users, and usability testing is also important when designing a product that is close to user needs. “Usability” is “The extent to which you can use a product to achieve goals effectively, efficiently, and with proper satisfaction in a certain context of use of a product.” Therefore, it is clear to see that conducting usability testing reduces the risk of building an unwanted or unsatisfactory product. Again, by implementing this testing, less resources are wasted and the design process is immediately more sustainable.
Related video: An Introduction to Design Thinking and Human Centred Design

2. Considering Sustainability Within User Research Practice

Adding sustainability into the user research and design thinking processes could lead to these issues being factored into innovation practices. There is a well-known venn diagram which connects the feasibility (can this be done?), viability (should this be done?) and human values (is there a desire for the product?).
Figure 1: Innovation Venn Diagram (Source: HPI School of Design Thinking) This venn diagram could benefit from an additional fourth circle of sustainability (is this product sustainable and helping the environment?). That way, a product’s environmental impact would be a consideration from its very conception.
Figure 2: Sustainable Innovation Venn Diagram

The takeaways

Sustainable product design that helps the environment is sought by users and customers. For example, in the US, three-quarters of American consumers are concerned about the environment and want to protect it. The problem is, that there currently are not enough product options that allow people to go about their day-to-day lives and simultaneously help the environment. However, shifts are happening. For example, single-use plastic bag use has reduced in the UK due to the 5p and 10p fee, and there is a drive for plastic packaging to be reduced, with companies such as Walmart planning to reduce waste. The consumer and user need is there to produce products that are sustainable through their design. User research can reduce waste in the design process and design-thinking innovation processes could include and prioritise sustainability. We believe that the design process is key in reducing environmental impact, and making sustainability a priority in this process could help in our efforts to save the planet. But what do you think? Is conscious design that keeps users in mind the key to an environmentally-friendly future? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to give this article “claps” if it made you think! The Snap Out Team ?