Mar 2022—Sep 2022
UX/UI Designer, Researcher, Writer.
Ecobuddy provides a space for both experienced and novice environmentalists to track their carbon footprint, adopt sustainable habits, and, most importantly, learn about the environmental impact of their actions.View Prototype
100% of global warming is caused by human activity.
There's no easy way to read that sentence... we know. But the reality stands: our planet is in deep trouble and we need to do something about it. With the climate crisis accelerating at an unprecedented rate, scientists estimate global temperatures to rise by 2.5 °F to 10 °F in the next century. But that isn't to say that the damage is entirely irreversible. In fact, NASA reports we still have time to limit and prevent some of climate change’s worst effects.
It's time to make a change.
There's been no shortage of signals from our planet during the last year that it needs our help. The increasing frequency of forest fires, severe flooding, and extreme heat warnings is just few of the sobering indications that a climate crisis is underway. And, from the looks of it, it's here to stay. As scientists note, by 2050, our planet may not be enough to sustain us—estimating that we'll need roughly three planets to sustain our growing population with the necessary resources.
“What strikes me is that the future we were really worried about and that us climate scientists talked about for decades, we’re living through that now,” — Susan Prichard, Research Scientist, University of Washington.
So, where do we stand?
According to researchers, humans emit roughly 9.5 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. From this, a net 5 billion metric tons remains.
Yes, these are high numbers. But what do they represent? For starters, they serve as a reminder that we are navigating uncharted territory. And a recent study by NOAA's Mauna Loa Atmosphere Baseline Observatory only confirms this, noting a record-breaking figure of our carbon dioxide levels.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has passed the 50% mark, with 420.99 parts per million for 2022, an increase of 1.8 parts per million over 2021.
In other words, we are now roughly halfway to doubling the amount of carbon ever emitted. And perhaps at the fastest rate yet. It took us over 200 years to reach a 25% increase by 1986. In 2011, we reached 40%. And now, only after one decade, we've reached 50%.
A focus on the North American Individual.
As we delve deeper into the relationship between human activity and climate change, we begin to notice some patterns—most notably, we recognize the significance of individual choices. In fact, when we look at the average household, we can see that they consume 29% of all energy, producing 21% of all carbon emissions.
What's more, North Americans contribute significantly to this figure, ranking as the world's second largest regional emitter at 18% of all global emissions (after Asia's largely factory-heavy carbon emitters).
But, it's not all doom and gloom.
In the last year alone, more than half of Canadians reported planning to pay more attention to the environmental impact of what they consume. What’s more, nearly two-thirds of Americans have been inspired to adopt more sustainable habits during the pandemic.
However, there are still some disparities in attitudes, behaviours, and education. As a 2019 study notes, 95% of Americans deem sustainability a good idea but struggle to put it into action. Convenience, a lack of awareness, and availability were all mentioned factors.
Bringing us to consider the design challenge...
How might we educate and empower individuals to become more sustainable in their daily lives in order to reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to the fight against climate change?
So, what's the reason for our inaction?
To answer this question, we must first take a step back and put ourselves in our users' shoes. Here, we'll begin to examine our design challenge from various perspectives, with the goal of developing one testable hypothesis.
Let's ask our users what they think.
To figure out the cause of our inaction, we'll conduct some of our own research, using surveys and interviews. Here, we'll try to uncover some of our users' pain points and concerns, helping us create a design solution that is both compelling and relevant to those immersed in the space.
But, throughout the process, we'll also want to learn more about the challenges that our users face in living a sustainable lifestyle. As important as it is to know what drives our users, it's equally important to know what hinders them.
To identify these needs, we can ask open-ended and topic-specific questions like:
• How would you describe your sustainability efforts?
• What are some of the perceived benefits and disadvantages of sustainable living?
• What currently motivates you to lead a more sustainable lifestyle?
• What are some of the barriers and obstacles you face to achieving sustainability?
And, voila. Some answers.
After distributing 15 surveys and receiving 12 responses, as well as conducting ten interviews with participants from all over North America, we have some answers to help us move forward. And though they may not have been the ones we anticipated, they still open up for us more opportunities than we previously imagined.
To keep things general, we opened up the conversation with questions about sustainability as a whole. And in response, we found that many of our participants felt anxious and worried, owing to how ambiguous and uncertain the future of climate change appeared.
Here are a few quotes from those interviews.
Our inaction comes down to a few things.
But, to determine the source of this ambiguity, we started to ask more topic-specific question, which led us to discover that there were a few factors at play.
For starters, our users were concerned about quantification and education—as they were unsure whether their choices had any measurable or significant effects. And when they made an effort to learn more about this relationship, the downhearted and often "depressing" nature of the information they found quickly discouraged them.
After all, as one participant stated, "We were never given a handbook on the subject. So, in a lot of ways, I think much of it is a guessing game. I wish there were more resources."
So, what can we do?
To bridge this gap, we shifted to a tone that was slightly more positive and focused on our participants' motivations. After all, understanding their pain points and concerns is crucial, but in order to move the discussion forward, we also need to consider how we can improve.
And a lot of the time, the answer to that question was found through an understanding of what motivates and drives our users. For some, it was a question of fear and anxiety, but for others, it was a matter of impact.
The human need for rewards.
Although our users confirmed our theories that costs, inconveniences, and education were barriers to sustainable living, they were not the cause of their inaction. In fact, the majority of our users did not consider them to be deal-breakers, even continuing their efforts to act sustainably.
In fact, our research led us to discover that the majority of our users struggle to reduce their carbon footprint or adopt sustainable habits not because of knowledge gaps or logistical and financial constraints; rather, they struggle to live more sustainably because they don't see any immediate benefits or rewards.
Blocked by a psychological barrier of the reward system, our users were unable to see the bigger picture, and hence were unmotivated to do more. After all, as humans, we have a natural desire to seek out rewarding stimuli such as rewards or incentives because it makes us feel good. And research only supports this, arguing that our motivations are driven by our desire for rewards.
"Adding immediate rewards does something similar: It increases the positive experience of the task, with important outcomes for motivation and persistence." — Kaitlin Woolley, Professor, Cornell University.
So, what does this mean?
Well, in short, it means that our assumptions were wrong. And while changes like this may typically come as a surprise, ultimately leading us down a different path, this is a magical moment for designers. This brief pause allows us to rethink our story, shifting our focus to one that's better suited to helping our users.
After all, it's called human-centered design for a reason.
And as part of this process, we'll want to revisit our "how might we" statement. Addressing our users' needs for impact measurement, we'll want to reflect this close relationship between our users and their interest in sustainability, while also taking impact and motivational factors into account. For example, given that education is not really the issue here, we might want to replace the word "educate" with "motivate."
So, let's make some changes.
How might we educate and empower and motivate individuals to become more sustainable in their daily lives adopt sustainable habits and engage with climate change on a deeper, more impactful level in order to reduce their carbon footprint? and contribute to the fight against climate change
Now, I want you to meet Emily.
With a better understanding of our users' needs and the design challenge at hand, we can now synthesize these insights into a fictional representation of our user, also known as our persona.
Although fictional, our persona will come to represent the very real traits and qualities of our users. It will help us break down the design task at hand, capturing only the most important, valuable information. And most importantly, it will serve as our guide during our ideation process.
So, without further ado, we'd like you to meet Emily Lang, a UCLA student who wants to make a difference.
What's Emily looking for?
To answer this question, we have to consider Emily's overall experience, as well as her pain points. For Emily, her curiosity is what drives her. Interested in learning about the impact of her actions, she turns to platforms like Facebook, Reddit, and of course, Google. But, given the few articles that target the impact-based data she's seeking, she's left confused and frankly, overwhelmed.
Turning insights into functionality.
Taking these insights into account, we can begin defining the functionality of our products. Here, we'll shift our focus to more concrete, tangible tasks, exploring our users' goals and figuring out ways to address them.
To do this, however, we must first place ourselves in Emily's shoes. We have to consider her experience in its entirety, even looking at the not-so-fun moments. These brief disruptions, after all, are pivotal for us. As we observe her frustration with the lack of impact-based data, we notice a few opportunities for a design intervention.
More than anything, we can see that Emily is concerned with:
• Engaging more deeply with the issue of sustainability.
• Understanding the environmental impact of her choices.
• Finding more efficient ways to reduce her carbon footprint.
We can also see, however, that she faces certain challenges throughout this process, ranging from a lack of impact-based data to information overload.
A task flow centred on measuring impact.
Given Emily's concerns about understanding the environmental impact of her choices, we've decided to focus our efforts on an impact measurement tool.
In the following task flow diagram, our users walk through the process of adding an action and viewing its impact-related metrics. Here, you may come across individuals like Emily who are semi-environmentally conscious, and want to learn more about the broader impact of their actions.
Now, we can start ideating.
With an idea of the user journey we want to explore, we can start sketching out some design elements. During this stage, it's critical to remember that no idea is a bad one—and all ideas are steps toward figuring out a design solution that works for our users.
With our core function of impact measurement, we've decided to focus our efforts on a mobile app with two main functions: recording actions and viewing its environmental impact. Further, due to the overwhelming nature of information out there, we stayed conscious of keeping this process as simple and intuitive as possible.
Translating our sketches into solutions.
Using our sketches as a guide, we can begin creating the skeleton for our digital screens, delving deeper into the concepts behind our ideas. Here, we'll want to turn our sketches into something interactive and tangible. And, to help us, we'll draw on our research insights, digitizing a user journey that works to Emily's needs and interests.
What's working? What's not?
With a working prototype, we can now begin conducting some usability tests. This step, consisting of two rounds at five participants each, will allow us to take a step back and assess what's working and what isn't.
As we approach these conversations, it's important to remember...
• How can we improve our design?
• Are there any issues with the product's functionality?
• What do our users want or expect from our product?
Here, we'll want to be thoughtful and deliberate, making sure that the participants we engage with match our target demographic and that our questions don't unintentionally steer them in a particular direction.
Well, for one, it needs to be fun.
Conducting some usability tests, we noticed that some of our users were discouraged by the downhearted environment of the app, noting a desire for more fun and lighthearted elements.
Additionally, some users expressed feeling overwhelmed by the "Green Alternatives" list, noting that the changes were unattainable, and too large to implement.
So, how can we improve our designs?
Well, we can take a step back and take stock of what we've discovered. Since our users cited concerns about its downhearted nature, we can look at new ways of making things more fun. For instance, we might want to add more encouraging messages and remove some of the negative language used, such as "cut down trees."
We can also revise our "Green Alternatives" list to include smaller, more practical changes. After all, as BJ Fogg's "Tiny Habits" model states, to achieve change, large behavioural shifts must be broken down into a series of tiny, gradual habits.
See how we changed our designs to reflect these new insights.
Defining our story.
Taking these insights a step further, we can begin to define our brand story and visual identity.
Given our concerns about environmental change, we find that our story is inherently linked to this idea of environmental growth and restoration. However, rather than embodying the anxious feelings that are typically associated with change, we want our users to feel the opposite, of relief and healing.
After all, given our users' concerns about the downhearted and overwhelming nature of sustainability, we want to make this experience as lighthearted and fun as possible. To do that, we can employ minimalist yet fulfilling elements to inspire growth in our users while keeping their curiosity alive.
With the intention of fostering a supportive environment for our users, we landed on the name "Ecobuddy." Offering our users the comfort of a friend, we felt Ecobuddy was reflective of a restorative experience that was positive, rather than anxiety-inducing.
To further emphasize this idea of change, we also included an image of a leaf on our wordmark—a visual often associated with the idea of renewal and growth.
Now, let's choose some colors.
Ecobuddy's colour palette was inspired by natural elements, with earthy, neutral tones used to represent our values of environmental restoration and change. But aside from the many shades of green used, we also familiarized ourselves with the ADA and WCAG 2.1 accessibility requirements, which called for various shades of grey and white.
And our font.
For our typography, we chose "Avenir Next" as we wanted to curate a minimalist look and feel that aligned with our visual identity. In the midst of the overwhelming space of sustainability, we find its simplicity aligned with our brand values of restoration and aspirations of positivity and serenity.
And voila... a new and improved product.
Last (sort of), but not least, we've taken our visual identity and applied it to a high-fidelity version of our prototype. An iOS native app, Ecobuddy helps users adopt sustainable habits, in ways that work for them. It aims to support users, just like Emily, who want to learn about the environmental value of their choices.
But to inspire our users, we kept the interface lighthearted and fun—incorporating elements of positivity and joy throughout the user's journey. We hoped that this would encourage our users to adopt sustainable habits, and see the value that a few small changes could have in the context of the "bigger picture."
Curious to see the final product? Head on over to the prototype below.
How'd we do?
Given that this was my first independent design project, I'd say it went pretty well. Over the course of six months, I was able to turn a mere idea into a full-fledged product.
And this was the result of hours spent researching, interviewing participants, brainstorming ideas, and, most importantly, reflecting. I say this because these moments of reflection served as the driving force behind this project.
At multiple points throughout the process, my assumptions and ideas were proven wrong. But it was this ability to reflect that led me to turn these difficult moments into features that could make for a usable and intuitive product. It allowed me to step outside of my biases and understand the perspectives of the users for whom I was designing. And above all, these moments of reflection helped me listen to my users' needs, leading to the creation of Ecobuddy.
What did we learn?
Although Ecobuddy has evolved to a place where it can kind of live on its own, these moments of thought don't stop. In fact, they persist well beyond the product's life cycle, helping me grow and evolve as a designer.
Here are some lessons I took away from Ecobuddy's creation.
1. The process is more important than the result.
At several points along the way, I recall wanting to dive right into ideation. But each step I took demonstrated that the process was too important to rush through. After all, if I had jumped right into ideation, I would have never realized how wrong I was about my users and the problem space.
2. Embrace the pivots.
I came into this project with a vision. A vision based on assumptions that had not yet been validated. A vision that was later proven to be incorrect through research. I knew I needed to change course, but I could feel myself resisting. The idea of pivoting was scary and uncomfortable, but it was also necessary.
And it was a valuable lesson. If I hadn't gotten over this fear of pivoting and shifted my focus, I would have created a product for just one person (me) rather than the larger target demographic.
3. Feedback is crucial.
As a designer, feedback is essential. It allows us to improve our designs and try out new things that we would not have thought of on our own. And, while it can be difficult at times, it provides us with insights that can help us assess potential errors and oversights and begin to work on ways to address them.
Check out my other projects.