User-centric tech making innovation accessible in the sustainability sector

03 March 2022 5 min. read

One of the newer aspects of software development that has spun out into a field in its own right is UI/UX. Freddie Eastham, founder of Easthouse, outlines how the user-centric tech approach can help facilitate innovation in the sustainability sector.

The terms UI/UX stand for user interface and user experience, respectively, and deal with how users use an app or piece of software. A lot of time and research has been focused on creating apps and devices that can be used intuitively by as many different demographics as possible.

The sustainability sector is no exception, and making sustainable software development more accessible to more users can help bring innovation in the industry to the masses.

Freddie Eastham, Founder, Easthouse

What is user-centric tech?

Much of this focus on making software innovation accessible to as many users as possible is known as the user-centric tech. This involves applying the principles of user-centred design to software and apps. User-centred design is very much like what it says on the tin – it’s a design philosophy centred on the end-user.

This means that usability is a primary design factor. The focus of development should be around optimising apps and other software such that users should be able to intuitively use them to do what they want or need without the need to be taught how. Rather than a lengthy instruction manual or guide, the app's design and flow should guide the user to their end goal.

All of this may sound like a rather obvious goal and something all apps should incorporate, but this is not the case in practice. This is a crucial distinction between user-centric tech and other design philosophies. The central premise of user-centric tech is that the app should adapt to the user and not the other way around. If there is a mismatch between feature design and user behaviour, the feature design should be changed rather than attempting to change user behaviour.

Making sustainability accessible

One industry where user-centred design and user-centric tech can make a real difference is the sustainability sector. Many companies treat sustainability as an initiative with lofty goals that require the end-user to go out of their way to help attain. These don’t have to be large or significant changes individually.

As an example, one of the most common suggestions provided for individuals to help save on energy waste is to turn off the lights when they leave a room. This is a straightforward thing for an end-user and doesn’t require them to go very much out of their way to do it, but the issue is more complicated than it would first appear.

There are a variety of light bulbs: incandescent, halogen, CFL, and LED, to name a few. Your lights should be turned off based on their type and duration. Incandescent lights, for instance, are very energy inefficient. They should be turned off whenever needed, while CFL lights are much more energy efficient but require a small surge of energy to turn on, which means that it’s not worth turning them off if they will be off for less than 15 minutes.

Not only does this require the end-user to know what type of lighting fixtures they have, but it also requires them to change their behaviour depending on what type they have. CFL, LED and incandescent lighting all behave differently and need the user to change their behaviour to accommodate their differences if they wish to save energy on lighting sustainably.

This is not user-centric tech, and this results in people either shortening the lifespans of their lights by turning them on and off too much or wasting energy needlessly by not turning them off at the correct opportunities. This is where innovation in user-centric tech can help drive sustainability and make it more accessible to more people.

Making innovation accessible

The internet of things (IoT) has exploded as an industry segment in recent years, despite still being in its relative infancy. The IoT industry was worth $308 billion in 2020 and is predicted to have a CAGR of 25% for the years 2021-2028.

The IoT is made up of so-called ‘smart devices’ that connect to apps accessed through a user’s smartphone or other devices. Therefore, these devices may be operated remotely and entirely digitally, opening up the possibility of automation. As a result, the users may not be required to change their behaviour to promote sustainability.

To go back to the lighting example, a user may use an IoT app with smart lighting appliances to manage room lighting. When a user’s lighting fixtures are all hooked up, the user may see at a glance on their smartphone which of their lights are on and off. They no longer have to be physically present in a room to check the lights and turn them on or off.

What’s more, is that they may be controlled entirely programmatically. If the user has a consistent schedule, this may be as simple as setting some timers that automatically turn lights on and off based on the time of day.

IoT software can do much more than simple timekeeping. There are many more possibilities here for saving more energy. Due to everything being digital and connected to the internet, there are many other ways software could help retool this to save even more power. One is by joining the lights to motion or heat sensors so that lighting is only turned on when someone is physically present in a room.

Further reading: Embracing Internet of Things boosts revenue growth.

This could be taken even further and connected to authentication services so that the lights will only turn on if someone with a recognised smartphone enters the room. This is only scratching the surface of what is possible with IoT devices. Still, it is actual user-centric tech - helping achieve sustainability without requiring the end-user to modify their behaviour.