The second podcast in our series exploring User Experience, we look at planet-centred design, the environmental impact of the internet, and how we can decrease our carbon footprint.

Join our experts as they discuss all this and share ways we can all become more sustainable.

Meet the speakers


Find out more about CGI in User Experience and how we are creating unique experience through insight and supporting our clients on their user experience journeys. 



Alex Lowe: Hello and welcome to this episode of the CGI Experience podcast, where we'll be exploring planet-centric design, how user experience designers can do more for environmental sustainability. I'm Alex Lowe, a UX strategist in our UK user experience team, and I'm pleased to be joined by my colleague Jake Fernandes today.

Jake Fernandes: Hi, I'm Jake Fernandes. I'm a UI designer also in our UK user experience team, and I'm very excited to share some very valuable information around sustainability in our industry today.

Alex: Let's start by explaining what planet-centred design is all about. It's about designing with the planet in mind, considering the environmental impact of our creations, and I believe that Jake, you looked into this a little while ago, is that right?

Jake: Yes, it's something I took interest in a couple of years back when I saw a talk online from Tom Greenwood at UX Academy London. You can find it on YouTube if you search it up. It was a really eye-opening and practical presentation that had some very alarming statistics and presented a lot of methods to improve sustainability.

This also stem from my interest in travelling, which is a huge passion of mine. I've been very fortunate to travel across the world and really sparked a desire to think about what we can do to combat issues around climate change. It's also been fantastic to be part of CGI, who are a company that pride themselves on being forward thinkers when it comes to these topics, and I know that we have many projects and teams worldwide tackling these issues on a daily basis.

Alex: Yes, we've got the likes of our No Planet B community who are always sharing knowledge across CGI about environmental issues, and there's Pawprint, which is an app that's been developed by CGI, and it allows CGI partners to track the environmental impact of their lifestyle. That's been a fantastic assistant for all of us, I think. Now, we know that climate change is a huge issue globally, but from a technology perspective, why should we be concerned?

Jake: Well, many of the solutions we develop are web-based, often for millions of users, which got me thinking how much of an impact these projects can potentially have. One of those statistics from Tom's talk that grabbed my attention was that if the internet was a country, it would be the fifth largest polluter in the world. It's responsible for around about 1.6 billion tons of CO2 production in 2020, and for comparison, the UK and Canada combined sit at around just about half that, so around about 800 million tons, which really puts it into perspective. There's a big narrative on visuals such as ocean pollution, deforestation, smoke drifting into the air from factories, and I think this is because as humans, seeing is believing and this might be why things such as the internet and digital pollution don't receive as much attention.

Alex: That seems to make a lot of sense, and those are some staggering figures that you provided there. I think it really highlights the impact the internet has on climate change, and when you consider that there's probably now only a tiny percentage of people worldwide who aren't actually online, it's something that affects virtually everyone.

Jake: Yes, exactly right. I think we can break it down, the impact, using the iceberg concept. For those unfamiliar with this, you have the top, which is visible above the sea, and it's also the smallest part, and then we go underneath sea level, so the part that's not visible, that's where most of the iceberg really is. If we use this analogy, the top of the iceberg includes things like file transfers, so these are everyday tasks we usually complete on autopilot.

Every time you open a web page, play a video, send an email, we're transferring data between our device and others, and you probably don't think twice about the climate impact that these actions would have, because they feel so insignificant, but transferring a one megabyte email has the same carbon usage as keeping on a light bulb for an hour, so there's that visual perspective and more mainstream narrative. It starts to highlight the importance of being efficient.

Alongside that, data centers are huge polluters. You may have seen things like crypto mining farms in the news and the impact that they're having on our climate due to the vast amounts of energy that they require to be powered. The same issue is present with these data centers. In fact, one year of electricity consumption in the average data center equates to one year of electricity consumption in a city of 30,000 people. Of course, there's a reasonable shift towards renewables to help power these, but 50% of centers in the US are still powered by coal, and in 2019, Chinese data centers have made 100 million metric tons of CO2 in just one year, and projections predicted that this year that was almost due to double to about 180 million.

That's above the iceberg and then, if we look a bit below, the underlying issue for a lot of these things, we start to understand the top a lot more. Why we're sending so much information, why we need huge data centres to hold it, and essentially its user journeys and processes.

Alex: From what you're saying there, it seems there's a great opportunity for us as user experience practitioners to really use our skills and methodologies to tackle some of these problems.

Jake: Exactly. 40% of greenhouse gas produced by the internet is down to net surfers or browsing websites. Inefficient user journeys create extra steps, further work, or high utilization of tools that could be avoided. These drive up actions required, and when we look at things like file transfers, those are increased, which obviously drives carbon usage up.

With processes, we look at how things are built in their capabilities, so systems built on legacy tech don't take full advantage of modern, efficient solutions, as well as inefficient user journeys, they combine to create slower, data-heavy navigation from point A to B. Not only is this a detriment to the climate, but they will typically be a frustration to users as well. High file sizes means increased loading times, poor navigation leads to users struggling to find their way through, the list goes on.

Alex: That's great, using the iceberg concept I think is a really interesting way of framing the problem, and it really highlights the fact that if there are inefficiencies in our methodologies, it can have this domino effect that multiplies the impact everyday tasks can have on our energy consumption. It also seems that good user experience practices can give us a good start to tackling some of these issues. Now let's look a little bit more generally into people's attitudes towards making a change. How do they come into this idea?

Jake: Well, we can categorise the ways in which we decrease our carbon into three main attitudes. The first is to consume less, which is the more obvious one, so we can do our bit to recycle, we can switch to electric vehicles, use a bicycle, public transport, so on. This is the method that we hear so often about, and albeit it does make a difference, it ends up being more of a moral win for individuals.

When you examine the impact that these have on the grand scheme of things, it is quite minuscule. You'd have to reuse a plastic bag 8,000 times to cover the fuel usage on a flight from New York to London, which is once a day for 22 years. They only work when change is made en masse, so things like government legislation, such as banning production on petrol and diesel cars, implementing clean air zones, those are what multiply the impact of those actions.

Also, when you look at the reduction of plastic in the ocean, almost all of the plastic is from fishing fleets and poorer countries, because leading countries have more effective waste management programs in place.

Alex: That's about consuming less, what else is there?

Jake: The next point can be far more impactful, and that is to contribute more. Paying to offset travel emissions when flying, making a donation to a cause, a charity, a research program, or volunteering in your local community. A little side note here as well is that we're assuming that these companies are truthful in their practice, and they don't end up pocketing large sums of donation and contributions.

If a person earning the average median wage in the US donated 10% of their salary, so about $3,000 a year, to projects promoting innovation and neglected green technologies, that would equate to reducing 3,000 tonnes per year per person. This is the more difficult solution as it does require an active or financial engagement to participate in, and the amount of people involved with these activities makes a larger difference than a solo effort, but it brings me onto the final method, which is to collaborate better so changing workflows, adapting methodologies, and delivering projects that consider an environmental impact.

Sometimes we're working B2C, delivering services that may be used by millions, so Google receives around 3 billion unique monthly visitors. If you think about the optimisation of their site and service, reducing bandwidth usage and data transfer sizes, the difference may just be a few megabytes per transfer. When you multiply to that scale, it makes an absolutely enormous impact on reducing energy usage.

Alex: Yes, that's it. When you look at the maths around that, you could be saving what? Around 3,000 terabytes per month on just a megabyte difference in data. It's incredible to see things at that scale and considering how many websites and products are accessed across the world on a daily basis. It's really those small differences that can have an enormous impact. As user experience professionals, how can we change our ways of working to create more efficient products?

Jake: We can look at it through the double diamond approach. I assume many of our listeners have heard of this, but for those who haven't, it's a framework for design and innovation projects that follows from an initial problem to implementation and delivery. We start with discovery, so finding out all we can about the problem before we then define a brief. Then develop potential solution and finally deliver the best solution.

Let's take each of those four phases and think about how we can consider the environment in each. For the discover phase, we can create planet-centred personas. This is an idea thought of by Paul Cook at Smaply, which is a well-respected UX resource.

Alex: Just to double check that, that's Smaply, how do you spell that?

Jake: That's S-M-A-P-L-Y. Hopefully we can link to the blog in the description as well. What it demonstrates is taking a general persona that you'd create for a project and applying an environmental look to it. Typical actions, pain points may include fossil fuel usage, resource waste like food, water, transport, et cetera. We can also look at streamlining our user journeys. As I mentioned before, a lot of these issues come from poor user journeys and unnecessary tasks along the way. By being more effective when creating these, you can eliminate many opportunities for excess carbon usage. You could also create an environmental considerations channel or map out a user journey specific to the environment. Then next in define, we started digging a bit deeper. We could interview subject matter experts for their take on things. These would be best aligned if the client has representatives for carbon neutral goals.

You can understand how to align the project with the company's aspirations or you could interview someone who knows a lot about the environment and factors regarding it within that tech and look to how you can apply it within your project. You could also create ‘how might we’ statements such as how might we design a solution that's carbon neutral or how might we create a product that promotes recycling and reusing? This is helpful to frame the problem in an environmentally conscious manner.

Alex: That covers the first half of the double diamond approach nicely, I think. There's some good techniques for user researchers to consider there. What about the second half, more towards the design and development side of things?

Jake: In develop we're starting to solutionise and this becomes more of the discretion of the designer based upon the briefing background. We can start to consider environmental features of a product. Some ideas include features that push the users towards sustainability. For example, ASOS, which is an  online clothing retailer in the UK, they had a filter that when you search for clothes would allow the user to highlight sustainable clothing options. They did end up removing it after big backlash for being very contradictory as they are a fast fashion platform.

We can also take a climate-conscious approach to design itself. There's many choices that we can make that will promote sustainability such as reducing font usage to one or two web fonts, formatting media correctly, compressing media, things like that. Then finally for deliver, so when I'm presenting this topic, I normally demonstrate how website carbon calculators break down the carbon usage of a website. There are a few that are online if users want to try for themselves.

In particular, there's one developed by Wholegrain Digital at What you can do is you can enter a URL of a website, it'll give it a score, it'll state the amount of carbon usage used to load the page and provide a breakdown of how that amount was generated. Things like videos and animations will use a lot, especially on autoplay. It also provides some helpful tips for people to improve their score so companies can take note and try to do the best for the environment.

Alex: It's a great tool to use. I remember we tested the CGI homepage before and it showed we're cleaner than 56% of pages tested. On the right course there, but of course, there's always room for improvement. There are also some great points you mentioned about creating user personas and journeys for the environment and including it within our thoughts through ‘how might we’ statements, I think is really useful. Are there any other pointers you can give for more technical listeners who are involved with development?

Jake: Yes, there's a whole bunch of things to consider, but I like to have this six-point checklist handy when it comes to implementation. Point one is to minimize image sizes by using compressed images, smaller resolution, and even effects such as blurring and grayscale. You can often reduce images by about 10 times the amount of the original. Going one step further, you could even consider if images are worth using or if there is a better alternative, so maybe you could use a vector graphic or CSS to convey the same message.

Point two is to consider your video usage. Following on from that last point, you could consider whether or not a video is best suited. You could use a GIF or an illustration to cut down on file size. If you do decide that a video is best suited, you could just reuse the same methods as before so compressing it, things like that. Point three is trying to use web fonts. Something I did mention before and limiting font usage down to one or two different web fonts. They are appropriately built for web usage. Not only do they possess smaller file sizes, they are also made with accessibility in mind. Also because they're stored within the browser, there's no extra files that need to be sent regarding font information to the user.

Point four is minimizing extras. What I mean by this is fancy animations and effects. They can end up taking up a lot of the page file size. If not properly optimised, can be a real burden on usability and loading times. Point five is reusing assets. Quite self-explanatory this one. If you've got images that could be reused elsewhere, try your best to do so. It makes use of the system caches and decreases loading times massively.

Finally, point six is always put the user first. As you reduce file sizes and bandwidth consumption, you will also lead to reduced loading times and increased user satisfaction. On top of this, it's important to reiterate how creating solutions with the user in mind will reduce time wasted trying to navigate, fill out forms, consume content, whatever the user is trying to do. They can complete tasks required and exit feeling highly satisfied and also reduce the amount of carbon consumed.

Alex: That's a nice and straightforward approach, I think. A checklist like that would be really handy to reference when we're involved in the development and deployment phases, especially as there are things that take little or no time like that. I think that'd be great. It seems that the little changes really do make a big difference. There's a snowball effect, I think, that happens when you consider some of the things mentioned before, like the billions of monthly visitors that Google receives.

Jake: Yes, it's hit the nail on the head. I think it's down to scale. When we start to think about this, we start to become more aware of those tasks that we might view as mundane or laborious and understand the real value that they possess. I think a key takeaway for listeners would be to look at projects that they're working on and see what changes they could make. Researchers, designers, developers, and beyond, they can all make an enormous difference with little extra effort.

Alex: Well, that's all for our podcast today. I think there are some great tips and things for us to think about as we're going through our design process. Hopefully more and more of us in the user experience community will be considering this as we go forward. Thanks very much for your insight today, Jake. Really appreciate it.

Jake: Yes, thank you very much.

Alex: Thank you all very much for listening.

[00:17:22] [END OF AUDIO]