I’m reading Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products & Services and am about midway through. There’s a lot that goes into building a sustainable product and as digital makers, we often don’t consider sustainability. Rather we think “hey, I’m saving paper, so this must be more sustainable.”, an we’re wrong.

The name of the game for digital product sustainability is energy consumption, both to consume and distribute. Improving sustainability isn’t just a single task, though some will have a larger impact than others.

What are some ways to improve the sustainability and reduce the environmental impact of your digital products?

Use Renewable Energy

Host with a provider who uses 100% renewable energy. This is getting easier, but is still hard.

This site and Airbot are hosted with Digital Ocean in their NYC1 data center. Within Digital Ocean (or any provider), the power source depends on the data center. This forum post has compiled the power-source information for the datacenters Digital Ocean uses where possible. NYC1 is “light green”, which means while the energy from the grid isn’t renewable, they are buying green energy credits. Sticking with DO, moving to my hosting to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or London would reduce the environmental impact of my projects, as they’re all powered by 100% renewable energy.

It seems I may have a couple of server migrations in my near future.

Control Content Size

Sustainable digital products are those that can use the least energy. Part of that is hosting, another part is the content itself.

Is your content providing value to your users? Or is it wasting their time, causing them to use their devices longer and consume more energy.

How heavy is your content? How much energy is consumed to get what you’ve made to your users? Are your sites heavier than they need to be, causing users to transfer more data than necessary.

Don’t make a video when a blog post will suffice. Don’t say in 5 minutes what can be said in 3.

File size matters. The smaller the file, the less time it takes to transfer, the less energy to deliver it to your users (quite possibly wirelessly), less space to store (thus fewer hard drives, fewer servers) – it all compounds.

That video you made where you’re mostly talking? You don’t need stereo – mono will suffice, you’ll reduce the file size, transfer time, and your users won’t notice.

Improve Your Information Architecture

How efficiently can users complete tasks? How much time are users wasting in your product / on your site trying to complete what they’re doing. As makers, a sustainable product is one that users can get in, get out, and get off.

  • Get In – Your product should be quick to load and easy for users to access.
  • Get Out – Helping your users find what they’re looking for and accomplish their tasks get out of your product.
  • Get Off – Build your product so that it respects your users and doesn’t try to suck them in to spending countless hours in your product. More time in your digital product increases needless energy consumption.

Making your digital product sustainable isn’t a one time task, but rather an on-going process, much like security, and deserves regular auditing. And just like security audits improve products for the users and business alike, sustainability audits should result in faster, less resource intensive applications, saving money for businesses and happy users.

While many developers don’t think of sustainability as applicable to their work today, I hope that more developers realize it is, and that we can make a difference.

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