Sustainability is more than Efficiency, Page Speed, or WPO


Sustainable Virtual Design is a “big picture” strategy for improving web, game, and virtual world design. A big component of sustainable design has to do with efficiency – making the web faster and sending fewer bits through the network. This work, traditionally delegated to “site engineers”, is Web Performance Optimization, or WPO.

Often, designers assume that optimization and sustainability are the same thing. However, its important to realize that sustainability and WPO are not the same.

Sustainability affects the entire process of design, from identity design to fine-tuning pages after launch. It’s more than speeding up page loads, even though right now tools like Yslow and Google Page Speed are our best indirect measures of sustainability.

Let’s consider three areas where Sustainable Web Design departs from web optimization, or WPO.

1. Limits of Page Speed and Web Performance Optimization (WPO)

Page speed or page efficiency is useful but inadequate, since the Internet is more than your web page.

If this isn’t obvious, consider a hydrogen car, like the demo models shown by several auto companies.

Hydrogen car concept, streamlined and cool looking, but energy hog nonetheless

Honda Hydrogen Car Concept

If all we were thinking about was local efficiency, hydrogen cars look pretty good. Clean burning, only water in the exhaust, no carbon released into the atmosphere. And, they are classic  “future tech” – they tie into our unspoken belief that technology can solve *anything* – if we just overcome the “evil corporations”, bad politicians, energy company conspiracies, and so on… We all want magic, and it makes a nice rock opera to think that only tech-magic is needed to save the world.

But real environmental science looks at the whole ecosystem. It looks something like this:

Schematic diagram of the complex ecosystem of agricultural practice

Agricultural Ecosystem

If we apply this to the virtual ecosystem of the Internet, hydrogen cars look bad indeed. Locally, they are clean and efficient, but we have to look at the whole “food chain” the creates the hydrogen they need. It’s a common misconception that hydrogen is a fuel. It isn’t in the normal sense, since there are no hydrogen mines on Planet Earth. It’s more like a gaseous battery. To make hydrogen, we have to use energy to split water, and collect the gas. That splitting is, by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, highly inefficient. Currently, the most efficient conversions give around 8%. You might get 15% efficiency, or even 20%, but never 95% – entropy would have to run backwards.

After that, we need to include the amount of energy needed to store and transport hydrogen. As a gas that can’t be made liquid easily, we  can predict it will be harder to move and store hydrogen than gasoline, and that efficiency will be lower than a direct electric conversion (provided we don’t lose too much power transmitting electricity through power lines or during battery charging).

Here’s a chart from a biased, yet useful blog at http://ecars-now.wikidot.com:

diagram showing the energy web of different car power plants, with electricity looking the best

Hydrogen compared to pure electric

I should point out I don’t totally buy the blog’s analysis of the superiority of electric cars – but I include the chart to show what you have to consider to determine if a product is actually “green”. You can’t do it by looking at the car itself. We have to do some numbers.

I’m not here to argue which car is best, but just want to point out that any system’s efficiency requires looking at all the factors. Hydrogen looks wonderful only when the car is considered in isolation. Web efficiency will need to do the same.

The same is true for the Web, and Web Performance Optimization, or WPO. One can make a website locally efficient at the coding level, but the overall process of design includes everything from initial conception to final launch and maintenance. WPO doesn’t affect any of these “external” factors. A big Internet company like Google can make a bigger impact, if it adjusts its network to be more efficient….

…But Google’s efforts aren’t fixing inefficient design shops, or all the horrible designs created using non-web design tools which just runs poorly no matter what you do. As I have said elsewhere, all the WPO engineer can do about a big, elaborate Photoshop page comp best suited for print is to “streamline that hippo.”

And it goes beyond page design.  Everyone knows that “evil” Search Engine Optimization or SEO can fill the Internet with lots of wasteful clicktrails that cause people to waste time and power finding what they need. Ditto for websites created with visual layout instead of UX as the primary driver – bad UX causes huge numbers of people to keep their systems powered up and sucking bits for longer.

To summarize the first reason Sustainable Web Design is not just efficiency:

Most WPO only takes the local system into account. Sustainability is about looking at the larger system, and including factors not easily solved by a local engineer. Formal, math-based techniques like Life Cycle Assessment used in other design industries are all about computing those “external” factors. On the web, they are currently ignored.

2. Jevons’ Paradox and the Efficiency Dilemma

The second reason Sustainable Web Design doesn’t reduce to efficiency also concerns limits. But here, instead of thinking about the system, we think about consumption of the system’s product. This problem is called Jevons’ Paradox, after 19th century industrial engineer William Stanley Jevons, who published the first book describing the problem in 1865. Simply put, Jevons’ Paradox notes that increasing efficiency often lowers the cost of a good or service. This, in turn, stimulates consumption. And this consumption doesn’t simply rise to match increased efficiency – it overshoots. At the end, increasing efficiency causes a net increase in consumption, making the problem worse rather than better.

So, taking the hapless Hummer H2 as an example, what would have been the net effect if the mileage of this car had been doubled by heroic engineering? The better gas mileage would have caused more people to buy a H2. The next effect, even though individual cars are more efficient, is a rise in gasoline consumption and greenhouse gases.

On the web, Jevons’ Paradox is visible in the slow loading of web pages. The speed of the Internet has increased dramatically since the early 1990s, and the average person in the US these days gets connections 20-30 times faster than the best modem. But in recent years, pages are loading more slowly. Spurred by the faster web, designers have loaded ever-more stuff onto their pages.  We have an epidemic of web page bloat. The average web page at this point is crossing 1 megabyte in size, compared to 30-4ok in the late 1990s. The increase in network speed was almost eaten up entirely by more elaborate sites.

web pages bloating

The growing epidemic of page bloat, from Gigaom

And, these sites have more traffic. A faster, always-on Internet moved more and more people to use the Internet, and launched a wave of “virtualization” – the migration of products and services in the physical world to the virtual one of the web.  The net effect, despite massive increases in efficiency, is that the Internet carries more traffic, and takes up a much larger fraction of US electricity, water (for cooling servers) and other resources. Jevons’ paradox at work!

In areas like Industrial design, Jevons’ Paradox is well-understood. The solution has been to “back up” the design process, and redesign products – instead of making them more efficient after they are designer. Unlike simple efficiency increases, this can cause a real drop in consumption. Sustainable Web Design seeks to do the equivalent in the online world. By re-thinking our design process, we are more likely to create greater sustainability, instead of increasing consumption via Jevons’ Paradox.

This is important. Any designer who just wants Google or a site engineer to “fix” the problem of the web so they can go back to making Photoshop layers is shirking their responsibility, if they conceive themselves to be “green”. You can’t make up for it doing lots of green backgrounds on your pages.

To summarize the second reason Sustainable Web Design is not efficiency:

Making a product or service more efficient, without re-thinking design, may result in increased consumption of the cheaper product, resulting in a increase in use. Optimization without design may make the web less sustainable.

3. Untouched areas of Web Sustainability

The final reason that Sustainable Web Design doesn’t reduce to efficiency is that there are lots of areas not considered by WPO engineers. This is an unfortunate aspect of our practice of “siloing” people into narrow jobs, and not encouraging more “hybrid” design and development on the web. This is a re-stating of the first reason, but I thought it necessary to specifically list areas in which web sustainability might apply. If you hate my acronyms make up your own!

Sustainable Design Identity (SDI) – can we create art and visual design that will continue to function in the future? One thinks of Microsoft’s risky move in Windows 8 to the “Metro” design look. This is an attempt to make the screen work over the long run, as more access is via mobile tablets, and less on desktops without touch-sensitive screens.  It draws on earlier design traditions, like Swiss School, street signs, and universal icons. Compare to the “so hot right now” features of typical visual art on the web when unbuffered by UX.

Sustainable Business Models (SBM) – can our company stay in business with a long-term solution on the web, or is our business concept, model, or collection of buyers and sellers unsustainable? There’s too much stuff to link here – just try the bolded text in your own Google search. Here is one book: http://www.amazon.com/Simply-Seven-Sustainable-Internet-Publishing/dp/0230308171

Sustainable Web Hosting (SWO) – is the hosting company sourcing renewable energy? Does the hosting company minimize energy and resource consumption by its data centers? Check out “genuine” green web hosts like Asio.net or Canvas Dreams. If the “green” pretension irritates you, just hold your nose.

Sustainable or “Green” Office (SGO) – same questions of sustainable hosting, except asked of a web design firm. This is something that sustainable graphic design sites like re-nourish have considered for some time. Learn from them.

Sustainable Search Engine Optimization (SSEO) – yes, SEO people are not all sleazebuckets. Lots of them think about more than the local site, and view the Internet as an ecosystem with virtual “game trails”. Effective SEO makes your trail more efficient, and doesn’t zap the other pathways through the online jungle.

Sustainable Programming and WPO (SWPO) - can web standards, Web Performance Optimization, new technologies like HTML5, and design strategies like mobile first, and progressive enhancement, and responsive design make the modern web more sustainable, cross-compatible, usable, and accessible than it has been in the past?  Lots of stuff, but check out some of the interesting suggestions over at Google: http://www.google.com/moderator/#16/e=2100

This is an area (unlike the others), where we are getting LOTS of help! Newest finds: http://requestreduce.org/ and WEBO Site SpeedUp: http://code.google.com/p/web-optimizator/

Sustainability of URLs – can documents retain their online location over the long run? What would make one URL more sustainable than another? What design/development principles could “lock” a document so it is accessible at its original location for the long run?

Nice article by Jeremy Keith at: http://adactio.com/journal/5317/

To summarize the third reason Sustainable Web Design is not just efficiency:

Many things required to create a functioning website are not part of Web Performance Optimization, or WPO. WPO engineers don’t consider non-code and hardware aspects of the web use, art direction, marketing, SEO, and other areas needed to create a web page.

Web sustainability is not just the responsibility of site engineers, or dark ranks of codebeasts stuck in the basement below your airy lofts of design. Start applying sustainability to your own projects today.

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