How Data-Informed Design can help you navigate these turbulent times

Adding “Just enough data” to your design process can have a big impact

An uncanny story of words, converted into data, stored forever.

Illustration of stylized hands holding smartphones with a background that gradually transitions from blue to green
Picture by geralt, background color choice by me

My first mobile phone was a Nokia 3310 and I still vividly remember the feeling of holding it in my hands.

I remember Snake, the ringtones, the key combination to unlock it…and its indestructibility, which today has inspired countless memes in front of which I smile like an old lady reminiscing about the good old days.

Animated GIF in which a smartphone and a Nokia 3310 have a weightlifting competition. The smartphone powers off immediately, while the Nokia 3310 goes from 100% to 99%.
GIF by Xataca

The Nokia 3310 made me feel grown-up and, above all, independent in terms of my interpersonal relationships.

No more calls on the home phone! (Although I admit I had fun eavesdropping on many of my mother’s conversations from a second receiver, unintentionally embodying Gene Hackman in The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola, a great movie that I recommend you watch if you haven’t seen it).

Poster of the movie “The Conversation” by Francis Ford Coppola
Official poster of “The Conversation” by Francis Ford Coppola

I remember though, that in terms of use, I was still attached to the purpose of the home phone.

I wanted to call. I wanted to hear my friends’ voices and gossip about my classmates.

Long story short, this couldn’t happen because mobile rates were more expensive than those of the home phone, and with a call of 5 minutes, I would very easily run out of credit.

So, my mother imposed me a monthly top-up limit.

That’s when I remember starting to send SMS (abbreviation for “Short Message Service”). Lots of SMS. Despite the Nokia 3310 requiring you to press a key three times to finally get to a letter, I have to admit that I had become what we would now call a fast typer.

A new world just unfolded over my eyes: the personalized abbreviations, the early emoticons, the anticipation of that unforgettable sound of a received message and the thrill of finally reading it.

Emoticon of a smiling face and an Italian abbreviation made of the letters “tvb,” which stands for “I love you” in English
Smiley emoticon and an Italian abbreviation for “Ti voglio bene” which means “I love you”

Texting with my friends had become even more exciting because it was done in the realm of a sort of code.

An sms represented, in every respect, a new way of relating and interacting.

From that moment on, text messages became quite literally my longest-lasting relationship.

When my Nokia 3310 left me, new cell phones came along, but the practice of sending messages only increased consistently.

At one point, I even had a BlackBerry, and man, I remember entire days messaging with my friends while thinking amidst the rivers of adolescent enthusiasm how fantastic it was to type on a QWERTY keyboard.

Image depicting a BlackBerry mobile phone
Picture by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

But things were destined to change because the big revolution was just around the corner.

The internet was there.

In the case of mobile phones, this led to the invention of our modern smartphones and opened the Pandora’s box of multimedia exchange.

Image displaying photos in a gallery from a distance that gives the effect of many colorful dots placed next to each other.
Picture by Peter Herrmann from Unsplash

The Greek myth of the Pandora’s box brings us back to a world where humans are warned by gods about the dangers of their curiosity.

…But who among us would have resisted the curiosity to send an MMS? Or even downloading a brand new messaging system called WhatsApp to send videos, GIFs and voice notes?

It’s easy in fact to imagine a modern-day Pandora, sending a selfie to a friend instead of opening the box while thinking: “This will not harm anyone!”

Comic drawn by me of a modern-day Pandora who chooses to send a selfie to a friend instead of opening the box.
Comic drawn by me of a modern-day Pandora who chooses to send a selfie to a friend instead of opening the box.

However, several decades later, we are forced to contradict poor modern-day Pandora and tell her that yes, unfortunately her innocent gesture had consequences.

Let’s start with the data.

According to Mike Berners-Lee, the author or “How Bad Are Bananas?”, sending a simple SMS produces 0.8 grams of CO2e (which stands for “carbon dioxide equivalent”, a unit of measurement used to express the impact of different greenhouse gases in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that would create the same amount of warming).

On the other hand, when it comes to determining the grams of CO2e emitted from sending a photo on WhatsApp, unfortunately, there is no readily available data to assist us.

However, we can attempt to estimate based on the information available to us.

To make this calculation, we need to retrace all the steps of the process: beginning with the device from which we send the photo, then moving to the network that sends it, the data center where it is stored, and finally the device where it is received.

Mike Berners-Lee has also made a similar calculation regarding emails. Despite differing opinions on the matter, 4 grams of CO2e seems to be a consistent average estimate for the impact of a standard email.

However, the impact dramatically increases when attachments are included, potentially reaching up to 50 grams of CO2e.

Based on this, we can estimate that a photo sent on WhatsApp, which has been studied that uses a similar process to sending an email attachment, could emit up to 50 grams of CO2e.

Now, it’s clear that the 0.8 grams of CO2e from an SMS are much less than the 50 grams of CO2e from a picture sent on WhatsApp. However, the point is that we usually don’t worry much about this difference because we don’t see it.

And sadly, that’s the issue. Today we recognize the environmental impact of throwing a plastic bottle on the ground, but not of doing an 1 hour long video-call or sending a 7-minute voice note.

And that is why I wanted to share with you Thijs Biersteker’s installation “MB>CO2”, which finally visualizes the hidden environmental impact of digital data usage.

The installation shows how each megabyte of data generates around 20 grams of CO2, depicted through puffs of CO2 released into a biotope as visitors interact with the installation via video calls.

And despite this installation being created in 2019, highlighting how the pandemic led us to excessive digital use, in 2024, after doing a research on a case study on digital sustainability, I realized that what still seems to be missing is the shared acknowledgment that digital is physical.

We can be frightened and outraged by the pollution from data centers, but not without questioning our habits, asking the right questions, and starting to take action.

As Warren Berger emphasizes in his book “The Book of Beautiful Questions”:

“In questioning why you believe what you believe, don’t overlook the ‘desiderability bias’ which, researchers are finding is quite powerful (perhaps even stronger than the much-discussed “confirmation bias”).”

Probably, in the context of instant messaging apps (not to mention social media), we often find ourselves influenced by our biases towards what we find desirable. Sending photos, voice notes, and videos has become not just convenient but also highly encouraged, rewarding and engaging.

However, the solution might not be necessarily stop doing it, but rather to ask ourselves:

"How can I revisit my messaging habits to make them more digitally sustainable?"

From a UX standpoint, this remains a relatively unspoken area that requires particular attention now more than ever.

Product Designers already play a crucial role in helping users reassess their digital interaction habits and behaviors.

As Vitaly Friedman highlights in his article titled “Sustainable Design Patterns And UX Toolkits,” there are already sustainable design principles that designers and developers can observe when working on a project, such as encouraging and rewarding users for trying out dark mode, aiming to reduce session duration instead of increasing it, and automatically deleting what hasn’t been used after 365 days.

And that’s why I believe there is room for hope that we can keep on promoting more eco-sustainable digital solutions and thrive in their applications.

As for communication and instant messaging systems, I believe we can make the step of proposing new habits to continue using this fundamental technology while respecting the planet we live on.

And why not, occasionally, reconsider using a good old-fashioned SMS? After all, it’s not only more sustainable but also adds a cool vintage charm.

Some links and resources on digital sustainability:

The environmental impact of our messaging habits was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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