Usability means sustainability: a note on world usability day

Today is world usability day, and the theme this year is sustainability.  I can undertsand if that might seem like a bizarre combination, or if it might appear that world usability day has jumped on some kind of bandwagon.  I don’t think the two are wildly unrelated, and I think it is timely that world usability day recognises the relationship.  The relationship comes into play in a number of ways, from better designed living spaces and cities down to feedback to technology users about their real impact, but today I want to focus on two issues: efficiency, and computer supported co-operative work.

Efficiency is, in my opinion, a really big way better usability can contribute to improved sustainability.  Consider that Ben Shneiderman found out 8 years ago that the average person spends 5.1 hours per week grappling with computer problems.  If even 25% of those people would otherwise spend those 5.1 hours doing something that didn’t require electricity, that is a huge environmental saving.  Consider also the case of Lufthansa flight 2904 where cockpit usability problems constributed the death of two people, and the scrapping of an aircraft or the Therac 25 usability problems which caused the death of two people and necessitated considerable medical treatment for two others; both of these cases highlight social, financial and environmental sustainability problems that might have been avoided with better usability.  More mundanely, consider workplace injuries caused by poor ergonomic design, or the tim you spend looking up help files: each of these is a loss in efficiency due to poor system design and lack of usability testing. Every loss in efficiency we suffer due to poor system design or technological troubles is a way that usability (measuring how real people interact wit that system)  might have produced a more sustainable product or system.

Computer Supported Co-operative Work is another area for significant growth in sustainability.  This research field has a rich hsitory of contributing to the ways in which we work, and promotes some real sustainability gains.  CSCW has been the genesis of ideas that allow us to travel less (because we can collaborate online–there are some things for which you have to be there in person, but meetins are no longer one of them), print less (because we can share and review documents online) and share ideas more readily (because electronic dissemination is so lightweight). In their own ways, each of these advantages of sharing an electronic workspace contributes to sustainability (particularly given that travel and paper are not incosiderable contributors to environmental problems) , and I have no doubt that CSCW will continue to provide stepping stones to sustanability gains in the future.

I could talk about any number of other ways that usability helps create a more sustainable world, but I need to get off this computer and go and do something requiring no electricity.  In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend this post on ways you can check the usability of behaving sustanably in your area.  What are the barriers you face in living sustainably that could be improved with better system design?

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2 Responses to “Usability means sustainability: a note on world usability day”


  1. 1 reynardthomson Monday, November 16, 2009 at 3:08 am

    This is insightful stuff, Dana. In my mind, the real benefit of something like World Usability Day is in bringing the field to the attention of those who might not otherwise have given it any thought.

    Usability (and, no less important, accessibility) is something we should *ALL* treat as a primary objective of all design. The problem is that it’s often the first thing to be abandoned when the budgets get squeezed.

    I blog on the subject of software design by using interactive prototypes – check out http://softwareprototyping.net – and key to the success of that approach is getting feedback from the very people who will use a system. They know how things work, and there’s no easy way to put ourselves in their shoes when building a system (and nor should we) but it’s surprising how few companies spend any time talking to their end users. Usability is a cornerstone of successful software design, yet many companies just aren’t ready to adapt.

    Their loss. And, sadly, ours also.


  1. 1 Weekly Round-Up: Friday 13th November « Researching Usability Trackback on Friday, November 13, 2009 at 9:43 pm

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