Designing a Greener Web: An Interview with Gerry McGovern

Gerry McGovern built his career on helping large organisations deliver a better digital customer experience. At the centre is a research method called Top Tasks, which he developed and refined over the course of 15 years. It focuses on identifying what matters most to customers and simplifying websites accordingly. Gerry discovered that if you removed around 80 to 90 percent of a site’s content, a company would sell more products, their support calls would drop, and customers would find what they were looking for faster. Recently, when reviewing his career, Gerry realised that his obsession with simplification could also benefit the environment, which led him to write World Wide Waste, a book about how digital is killing our planet and what we can do about it.

“Climate change had been on my mind for a while,” Gerry remembers. “Initially, I thought I was lucky because I was working in digital, and it’s green, right? But then it just struck me that everything in digital is electrical, and I began to think about all the work I’ve done in the last 25 years. Whenever I consult with an organisation, I’d find that 90 percent of either their content, data, or architecture would be waste. If you take sales management systems, for example, 49 out of 50 PowerPoint presentations are crap. They include the wrong pricing, or are just half done, and then I realised they all have to be stored. That’s just extraordinarily wasteful!”

Gerry started exploring how digital was affecting the climate, and found it to be the fastest growing user of energy and emitter of CO2. It was a real eye opener.

“Let’s look at just one specific area, the fashion industry,” Gerry suggests. “Our Instagram culture has accelerated fast fashion. We buy five times more clothes than 20 years ago, and we wear them for half as long. Most of them end up being dumped. Globally, the equivalent of an entire garbage truck full of textiles is dumped or burned every second, and because these clothes are increasingly made out of plastic, they’re toxic. We would need to plant 12 trillion trees to offset that sort of pollution, which happens to be four times more trees than currently exist on Earth. Digital doesn’t just consume energy, it also creates a culture of waste and impermanence.”

“Designing for the customer and user experience is definitely progress but we have to think beyond it because digital has created a culture of waste, overconsumption, and overconvenience.”

Greener design decisions

While a lot of companies are committed to renewable energy, we will also need to rethink our design and development decisions to really make a difference. Gerry points out that we have been blind to the hidden energy costs and wasteful habits of digital and has made it his mission to raise awareness, especially among digital professionals.

To accompany his book, he launched a podcast also called World Wide Waste (part of the Human Centered Design Network), in which he talks to designers who are pioneering green digital thinking and methods. The first episode featured Jeremy Keith, followed by Eric Meyer, Karen Peeters, Erika Hall, and more.

“I’m inviting people who are doing work in this space and can come up with strategies that help us become more environmentally conscious in the way we work. I’m calling it the earth experience,” Gerry explains. “Designing for the customer and user experience is definitely progress but we have to think beyond it because digital has created a culture of waste, overconsumption, and overconvenience. We tend to choose the option that makes our life easier. Over the course of 15 years, the average web page has gone from 400KB to 4MB, and a huge amount of that is unnecessary. We probably don’t need 90 percent of the JavaScript and the CSS!”

“I interviewed Eric Meyer for the podcast, and he said that for a while he used a pretty good industry tool to optimise his images but when he spent a bit more time and effort on trying out other more customised tools, he managed to really fine-tune them, reducing the image size by another 80 percent. Most of us don’t have the time to do a good job anymore. We have become production line creators and use standard Swiss army knives for everything. We use them when really we only need a little tweak. It all has an impact. When it takes ages to download a site on mobile, are we even still creating a quality product?”

All too often, web design and development best practices are not the focus of management, leading to a bad user experience. When Gerry talked to a senior executive at Toyota for the podcast, he learned that the car giant is obsessed with the quality of its cars but until recently didn’t consider quality in a web context.

“Now they’re also establishing the need for a page to download quickly,” Gerry points out. “Imagine putting the foot on your car’s accelerator, and it goes to a maximum of 60 kilometres an hour. Well, that’s the same feeling as waiting for a page to download. If it takes five seconds, that’s a bad experience. It’s as bad as a badly designed wheel or engine, yet so many websites are full of crap, whether it’s images, unnecessary custom fonts, or poor code.”

Designers who are aware of the issues often struggle to get buy-in and come up against the pressure to deliver.

“In nine out of 10 cases, delivering stuff faster is rewarded more than delivering quality more slowly. It’s a culture of volume. Focus on what matters and don’t create apps for the sake of it. The purpose is important, not having an app or a dashboard. If we asked some really foundational questions, and trained ourselves to understand the true impact of digital and the consequences of our decisions, we’d design a hundred times better. We need to get away from the cult of surface design and the focus on the immediate wow factor, which still drives a lot of design on corporate websites. But whether you look at Google, Twitter, Amazon, eBay or Facebook, we have so much evidence that those who succeed did not go down that path.”

The ebook size of World Wide Waste, all in black and white without any images or tables, is 94 percent smaller than Gerry’s previous book, even though it’s 20 percent longer.

Embrace local and remove what’s not necessary

We also need to start cleaning up after ourselves. By way of an example, Gerry points out that when you store an image in the cloud, you make a copy every time you change it, which means there could be 40 copies that you might not even be aware of. Gerry suggests embracing local instead.

“Multitudinal studies show that 90 percent of data is never accessed again just three months after it’s created. So at least try and store as much data as possible on a hard drive. It consumes 3000 times less energy in many scenarios than if you stored it in the cloud. I only keep the stuff that is current and that I’m working on and need to share in the cloud. All the other stuff I archive and keep locally. It’s 150 times more energy efficient than immediately accessible storage.”

Local, however, doesn’t just mean storage for Gerry. It also means supporting local independent businesses.

“If we allow our world to be so controlled by the Facebooks and Amazons, it will be a dystopian world,” Gerry warns. “Our local businesses will be destroyed in the process. We need some sort of massive societal reshaping. We need to think local and pay for what’s valuable to us. If you use something a lot, pay for it, and support the business. And if you have the choice between two products, one by a big company, the other one by a small one, choose the small company and go for the lightest option. You don’t need 90 features, each one of which creates pollution.”

For his own podcast Gerry questioned whether he really needed to record the shows in WAV, a lossless format, before publishing them as MP3s.

“A friend who’s helping me is a real audiophile, and he said I couldn’t record in MP3 because I was going to lose quality, but WAV is 10 times the size of MP3. So I decided to do a little bit of research. I came across an article by professional journalists who said that they all send in their files as MP3s when they’re on the road, and nobody notices. I then carried out an experiment and recorded the exact same piece of voice — one as an MP3, one as a WAV. I sent three files to a bunch of people to confuse them, and the vast majority came back to me and said they couldn’t hear any difference.”

“We have to ask ourselves questions like ‘what’s the lightest option?’. If an MP3 does the job, you’ve saved nine times the pollution of a WAV. The energy might be renewable, but somebody still has to build the solar panels and the wind turbines. They don’t come out as Santa Clause boxes. And there’s a gas, called SF6, which is 20,000 times more damaging than CO2 and constantly leaking out of the electricity grid systems. It’s all well and good to have fancy data centers with renewable energy, but if you send this stuff over wires in systems that have been built 20 or 30 years ago, it creates stress. Anywhere we can reduce energy, we improve the health of the earth.”

It all adds up when you start questioning everything. Do you really need the fastest processor? Do you need a 4K screen? “I have a big screen, and I love it, but I’ve tried to get away from it. I have to wear my reading glasses more but I’m trying to find ways to consume less energy, however minimal it might be. I also started reviewing my consumption of free products. I pay for my coffee, so I should pay for software that helps me and is of value to me. Start thinking about what these tools are really worth to you. If you don’t want to pay for them, they’re probably not worthwhile. Clean them out and feel better for it.”

Design for a better Earth experience

The current Covid-19 crisis has resulted in a significant reduction in CO2, largely due to a reduction in factory output and less traffic. The sudden shift to working from home clearly contributes to fewer carbon emissions. However, Gerry says we still need to review our practices, such as how we use — or overuse — remote working tools.

“We should never forget that they cost energy,” he cautions. “When you use high-res video for a conference call, you create a file that’s 40 times bigger than if you just used audio. I’d suggest using video for the first five minutes to meet and greet and then switching to audio. We need to be more conscious and ask questions like ‘do you really need 50 people on the call?’ and ‘do we really need to store these videos?’. Because when we do, all of a sudden the benefits for video conferencing don’t look quite as attractive.”

Gerry hopes that our digital world will slow down, so we can think, change, and fix things. Following a simplified ‘less is more’ approach would help reduce stress and energy, make websites download faster, and create less content that needs to be updated. This means teams can spend more time on improving the quality of their products and less time producing volume. Gerry points to Microsoft for one of the best models of how change is possible.

“They have a personal review system with three tiers,” he explains. “The first part, which used to make up 100 percent of the review, looks at what you have created in the period that’s under review. The second part looks at what you have reused, and the third part looks at what you have shared, so that it can be reused. It changes the mindset, because if you need your stuff to be shared, you are going to invest more time in making it findable. It shows how you mature as a designer or developer. At the beginning you’re focused on creating things, but then you learn how to adapt something and understand that reuse doesn’t need to hurt your ego.”

World Wide Waste is a wakeup call, a passionate call to action. To really reduce our digital footprint and turn things around, we need to reassess the way we work. We need to ask ourselves core questions. We need to clean up our content and our code. We need to plan digital projects with the environment in mind from the start. We need to stop getting carried away by the latest frameworks, tools, or features. We need to stop treating technologies and methodologies as gods that magically solve all our problems. We need to put the emphasis on conscious decision-making, filtering, and what’s really important again. And we need to move away from the culture of volume. If we do that, we will support a cleaner, more energy-friendly digital. The time to start designing a better Earth experience is now.

To learn more, check out World Wide Waste — available now as an ebook and a paperback. This article was originally published at on August 10, 2020.