Christoph Ortmann, Head of Interface Design for BOSCH at the B/S/H Group
Burkhard Müller, Chief Digital Officer, MUTABOR

Many companies are currently grappling with the question of how they can apply the topic of sustainability to their products. While most have already considered solutions such as sustainable materials, production conditions or recycling, product users themselves are still often neglected. Yet often they have a significant impact due to the way they use the product.

If you consider the example of a simple washing machine, there are different factors that determine a user’s environmental impact: How much water does my wash cycle need? How much electricity does it use? How many wash cycles will I run for a particular amount of laundry?

Many people would like to act more sustainably, yet we often use our household appliances thoughtlessly and without being aware of the impact we have. But what exactly is holding us back from using them as efficiently and sustainably as possible?

The barriers to sustainable use of appliances

Together, we identified three sets of barriers that keep people from acting more sustainably.

The first describes the invisibility of the impacts caused by our own way of using an appliance: We simply don’t see the influence we have — and maybe sometimes we just don’t want to see it.

The second set of barriers relates to social orientation. Humans are social animals: We often base our actions on how “the others” around us are acting. This can even extend to using others as an excuse not to do something.

The third and final set of barriers is about convenience. As humans, we are simply set in our routines and always try to find the most convenient way to do something — even though this solution may not be the most sustainable one.

How can we overcome these barriers?

For User Interface Design, various approaches can be derived from the different kinds of barriers:

Making the effects of our own behavior visible:

How can a product show me the impact of my actions? One example: The so-called Eco Score of a well-known carsharing provider was intended to show users the impact of their own driving behavior and encourage drivers to drive in a more environmentally friendly and proactive way.

Putting behavior into context:

A social component can be added to products. How do I perform compared to others? For example, smart metering solutions already exist that compare your energy consumption with others in the neighborhood. Placing product use in the context of their own brand community also gives users the option to compare themselves outside of their own filter bubble.

Gamification: Setting incentives

The right incentives can help to promote sustainable behavior.
For example, different forms of incentivization could be made part of the user experience. Users who behave in a particularly sustainable way could receive positive and motivating user feedback, or even special benefits. Of course, it is important that users should not feel forced to do anything.

Nudging: Making it as easy as possible for a user

Convenience is key. So why don’t we make it as easy as possible for users to act in a truly sustainable way? Sustainable functions should be easily accessible and require minimal effort. The “Power of Defaults” should not be underestimated: Making Eco mode the default is sure to increase its use. This also works the other way around: Requiring an opt-out could help users to consider whether they really want to use a less sustainable function.

The important thing with all of these issues is not to irritate users at any time. Any nudges or functions must be correctly placed along the user’s journey. The right tone is always important too.

One thing is certain, however: User Interface Design as a direct interface to the user is a huge lever for more sustainability — and this potential deserves to be exploited.

“The sustainability of a product is ultimately decided by the users. Our interfaces can promote sustainable behavior in a playful way, which makes them a key component for a sustainable society.” Christoph Ortmann, Head of Interface Design for BOSCH at the B/S/H Group