An exception to being user-friendly

Reading Time: 8 mins approx.

In simple terms, the job of a UX Designer is to make people’s life easy. The truth is, everyone’s job in some way or the other is to make people’s life easy. Take the example of a cashier at a store, his job makes life easier for customers as well as businesses by being a singular point to collect and hold money. Another example, a door-to-door salesman makes life easier for businesses by taking goods and selling them to customers in the comfort of their own home. So you can have any answer to the question “What’s your job?” and trace it to an impact that’s equivalent to making someone’s life easier. 

All inventions ever created were also aimed at the same. Washing machines, fridge, air conditioning, vehicles, the list goes on and on. All of those are for the comfort and improvement of people’s lives. There’s another invention which can be considered as the greatest invention ever! An invention that solved so many problems at once, that we haven’t been able to fully replace it or find another solution that solves that many problems at once. 

What is that invention? Plastic, invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland

Think about it, everything from your toothbrush to your wallet is either made of or came wrapped in plastic. It’s waterproof, leakproof, reusable, long-lasting, and safe enough for food to be wrapped in. Like a bubble being popped, one of the greatest inventions ever became the worst thing we could do to planet earth and now we are running around like headless chickens trying to fix the mess we created. 

A lot of efforts are being made with the ban of plastic carry bags, awareness campaigns, promotion of sustainable cutlery and utensils. As UX Designers whose sole purpose is to make everything easier for consumers, we know that all these efforts aren’t going to pay off until one of the following happens:

  1. Being sustainable is the easier thing to do
  2. There’s no other choice but to use sustainable products

So, can we design our life in such a way that being sustainable is the norm? That’s the question I set out to solve a few weeks ago. I divided my day into 3 sections to take a closer look at each and identify ways to be more sustainable. A major step in it was to look at each and every plastic item I used and researched on an alternative that was less harmful to the environment. I’ve succeeded in some and failed in others. Let’s look at each section and how I tried to tackle each. Remember the word “tried”.

For each alternative discovered, we’ve given two ratings.

Eco rating:👍 – shows it’s eco-friendly, 👎 – shows, not completely eco-friendly

UX rating: 😟😐😊😃 – indicating the ease of adopting that alternative.

Section 1: The morning rush

Toothbrush + paste

Toothbrush, we use this every single day and replace it every few months. I’ve never wondered where my toothbrush went after I throw it into a bin. I don’t remember ever giving them for recycling either. With a little bit of research, I found out that toothbrush and toothpaste packaging cannot be recycled fully, at least not in India yet. There are some resources available for doing this in the US but that’s not relevant to me as it’s just silly to mail toothbrushes and tube to the US from India. So let’s look at our alternatives and their levels of easiness to adopt.

1. Bamboo toothbrush 👎 | 😃

This was the easiest transition to make. We still get the exact same experience of a plastic toothbrush, mainly because the bristles are made of nylon (same as in plastic toothbrush) but it isn’t entirely sustainable. The bristles will still have to be landfilled, only the handle is biodegradable.

2. Neem Sticks 👍 | 😐

The first natural toothbrush used by us before plastic took over the world. To be honest, it’s very hard to switch to this one for the following reasons:

  1. You must have the tree at home
  2. Doesn’t give you a ‘fresh’ feeling 
  3. The ones you buy online don’t seem to last very long

3. Umikari 👍 | 😊

Umikari, made from rice husk was the only toothpaste I knew as a kid until I was old enough to “not swallow” paste. It’s completely eco-friendly, extremely cheap, and in my personal opinion, quite tasty as well (or it could just be the nostalgia talking). It comes in paper packaging so that’s an additional plus.

4. DIY Tooth Powders 👍 | 😊

Newsflash: We don’t need harsh chemicals and foam to get sparkling clean teeth. Simple DIY tooth powders made from things that are commonly found in our kitchen can do the same trick.

Section 2: A long workday

Ballpoint pen

In our office, we have an unlimited supply of free ballpoint pens and as UX Designers, we go through them pretty quickly. A lot of our initial ideas are drawn/written with pen leading to too many empty pens tossed into the bin. Are they being recycled? Maybe. Can we reduce our carbon footprint by decreasing the number of pens we throw away? Yes! Here are the alternatives.

1. Fountain pen 👍 | 😐

Refillable fountain pens are now seen as artefacts of a bygone era and they need to make a comeback. When I was a kid, Hero fountain pens were all the hype and with time there were improvements to “make life easier” such as cartridges, which were plastic containers filled with ink and thrown away once it’s empty. That still creates plastic waste and is just one step below throwing away ballpoint pens. Ink usually comes in glass bottles that can be recycled. In terms of user experience though, using fountain pens come with its own set of troubles like leakage, the roughness of nib, ink running out in an emergency situation, and inkblots.

2. Pencils 👍 | 😃

At work, there are no hard and fast rules about what writing instrument you use (unlike schools) so we have the freedom to switch to pencils. If pencils weren’t already eco-friendly enough, they now come with seeds at the bottom. In terms of user experience, the drawback is having to sharpen it very often but we can solve that by using mechanical pencils. 

Section 3: The evening lull

Shopping bag

We all know this one. Rapid measures are being taken by the government to ban the usage of single-use plastic bags. We no longer get plastic bags from shops, they are replaced by paper bags or cloth bags. We also have to pay a fee for them, which encourages people to bring their own bags to shops. But what about grocery shopping? At supermarkets, each set of vegetable is wrapped in plastic, weighed and sealed. That’s a bigger generator of plastic waste than shopping bags as they are rarely reused and hence this was the issue I focused on most. What are the alternatives? 

1. Don’t go to a supermarket 👍 | 😃

Switching to local street vendors are by far the best alternative there is. Take a shopping bag with you (reuse a plastic one) and buy fresh groceries at a much cheaper rate. The vendors will thank you for your business,  the environment will thank you for being eco-friendly, and you get the joy of forming a relationship with vendors who use newspaper to wrap groceries. With time, you get better deals for your money too!

2. Force supermarkets/corporates to make a change. 👍 | 😟

We’ve sorted groceries out but what if you want to buy bread? Or biscuits? Or any kind of packed food? They all come in plastic packaging. The source of plastic is not stopped but a huge amount of pressure is put on consumers to avoid it. We take a cloth bag to supermarkets but everything that we put into our cloth bag is covered in plastic. Call me dramatic but this is like sending fumes of smoke into the air and asking the air not to get polluted. The government is taking several measures to ban plastic but unless we put a cork in its manufacture, no amount of climate change agreements can make a difference.

In conclusion, plastic is a very user friendly material but it’s one of the major contributors to pollution. To continue living a healthy life on this planet, we must do some serious damage control and one of them is making eco-friendly choices the easier decision to make. What is the push required to force people into making the switch? Is it just banning plastic at a consumers end? Or should governments push corporates to research and replace their production of plastic? Until we find ways to answer these big questions, each and every one of us has the ability to make a choice today: To pick the easy path of using plastic and ruining Earth? Or picking a less conventional path and saving planet Earth? As a user experience expert, it is tempting to suggest that users’ convenience comes first, but at the cost of losing our planet? I think not.

For those sceptics who wonder what difference will I make alone by choosing an eco-friendly path? I’d like to leave you with these amazing words: 

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” – Dalai Lama

It can be hard convincing people around us that climate change is real. You may even be ridiculed for trying to make a difference. In such cases, there is nothing better than a 16-year-old girl to put people in their places. Here’s how: