Digital design and waste culture


PHOTO: Steve Johnson

Digital is fragile, impermanent, flexible, malleable. It creates a strong impetus to create things with digital that are fragile, impermanent, malleable. How many developers and designers have decided to build a website or an app with the idea that it should last? Very little. When building websites or apps, the whole idea is that they will change, so very little attention is paid to longevity, lasting value. We design for impermanence because we design for the present moment.

In the digital world, planning, anticipating, doing a deep analysis and being careful and slow in building something that will be strong and stable – all of this is seen as archaic and unnecessary activities. It seems like everything digital is getting fluid and, in a sense, disposable.

We design websites and apps the way we think and use plastic. They will be used, then thrown away and replaced with something newer, better. This mindset leads to a free culture of waste. It is the philosophy of digital, it is the culture of digital, it is the practice and pride of digital technology that are driving and accelerating the climate crisis. It is a philosophy of production, creation, unlimited and free consumption. It is a philosophy where nothing is to be maintained, where everything will be thrown in the shortest time.

In digital, the dominant philosophy and culture are speed, agility, youth. We develop software in a sprint. Imagine that? How many people can physically sprint well? Ah, but some say it’s not about sprinting, it’s about running a marathon. When was the last time you tried to run a marathon? What if we walked? What is wrong with designing things while walking?

Why do we always have to be in a hurry? Is it better to rush? Not in my experience. The condition of most websites is not very good. Full of shoddy content and shoddy, shoddy code. I recently interacted with an organization where 5% of their content was getting over 80% of visits. Tens of thousands of pages on the site had not been revised for 10 to 15 years. No one was looking at them, neither the visitors nor the authors.

There are some 1.8 billion websites. Think about all the waste content that no one cares about. Each page creates CO2 because it needs to be stored, it needs to be held ready just in case. This is the classic thought process in the digital world. “We have to publish this just in case. We have to keep this just in case. Everything to avoid deep thinking and difficult decisions. Everything to avoid maintenance.

Well-designed information architecture is a very permanent thing. Twenty years ago when I was working with council / municipality websites we were talking about classes like garbage collection, roads, libraries, schools. It’s the same today. Twenty years ago, if you had an operation in a hospital, you were concerned about what happened before, during and after the operation. Forty years ago, if you were going on vacation, you needed accommodation, things to do and see, specials, get there and get around. You still need the same today.

Part of the solution to tackling the climate crisis is to tackle the availability and planned obsolescence of digital products, content and codes. If we want life to last on this planet, we need to design and maintain the things we use to last as long as possible.

Gerry McGovern is the Founder and CEO of Customer care words. It is widely regarded as the global authority on increasing web satisfaction by managing customer tasks.


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