In my work, when clients brief in a website revamp, they are often looking to improve the user experience, add more content and/or functionality or overcome problems with an outdated content management system that is struggling to scale with their organisation's needs. In expressing their vision for what the new site should be, we often hear a “world-class” user experience where customers can interact or engage with products, content and services intuitively, with ease and efficiency.
There’s a disquieting silence though, when it comes to measuring what the environmental impact of that shiny, engaging, all bells and whistles website is. That's to be expected, because it is not often a top-of-mind KPI of many organisations. They source sustainably, they manufacture sustainably, they package sustainably, but the website? Truth is, not many clients are aware that the way a website is conceived, designed and built out on the backend can make a significant difference to carbon emissions.
Yes, websites, email, social networking apps all leave a carbon footprint. If you’re curious, the internet would be the sixth most polluting country in the world, with emissions close to Germany if it were a country (Source - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06610-y).
As an agency conceiving the architecture, content, hosting and technical builds of these sites, we've had to reckon with some of the design proposals we recommend to clients and ask ourselves if there is more we can do to raise awareness about the carbon footprint that websites create.
One of the things we've started to do, is introduce the idea of creating a sustainable website. There are many steps and tasks for this, but in a nutshell, this typically involves:-
- A planning phase where user research, data and stakeholder inputs determine how the information architecture of the site can be as lean and intuitive as possible
- A design phase with judicious use of colors, fonts, images, videos, motion graphics so that all "icings" on the cake are reduced to a bare minimum
- A frugal creation of templates in the backend CMS so as many can be reused and/or recycled
- An execution phase where the team follows a clean and compressed coding methodology
- A hosting phase, where we look at green hosting solutions
- The sustainable approach also extends to the ways that we collaborate with clients and manage change iterations.
Naturally, not all clients are amenable to these discussions. Not because they are not empathetic to the cause, but because many have real problems to solve, and hard targets they need to meet. It's all very well to talk about CO2 emissions, but what about engagement and conversions and looking and feeling "world class"?
So as an agency, our first task is to show the client how a sustainable design aligns to their goals. One of the ways I find works is to pivot the discussion to how a sustainable design approach helps improve the site's performance, whether it is making the site faster, improving transaction speeds or making it more accessible. It is only when we are able to demonstrate how the approach helps move the needle on what the client prioritises as important KPIs, does discussion often move forward.
Alongside our focus on "human centred" design, "accessible" design and "inclusive" design is the pressing need to make sustainable design "baked into" all design discussions. In so doing, we, as agencies can start playing a more active role in helping clients say a resounding "Yay" to building a sustainable site and become more environmentally friendly in the way that they market online.
Are you interested in knowing what the carbon footprint of your website is? A tool you can you to test it is: https://www.websitecarbon.com/. The methodology used to calculate the energy and emission of a web page considers the following data points:
- Data transfer over the wire
- Energy intensity of web data (Energy is used at the data center. Because this varies for every website and every visitor they assume an average figure
- Energy source used by the data centre (To gauge the energy source, the assumption is that all websites use standard grid electricity for the telecoms network and end user).
- Carbon intensity of electricity
- Website traffic
For now, the tool can only test out one url at a time, but do it on your most frequently visited pages, and you'll start to get a good idea of how you score (A clean score of above 50% means you're on the right track!)
- I stand on the shoulders of the members of my team, both past and present in advocating for sustainable design methods including Jaffry Jalal Joshua Lee who mooted and completed our first sustainable website with Earth Observatory Singapore to great results.
- I am currently negotiating a revamp of my own agency’s website, which is a poor example of a sustainable site. Be kind.