Virtual Hedonics in Sustainable Web Design

One feature of Sustainable Virtual Design is that it is about more than “efficiency” – which is how different individuals in a project describe what they try to do with programming, UX, or delivery. Systems Theory requires that we “jump up a level” to see the larger system to analyze true sustainability. Efficiencies at a local level may well translate to unsustainable behavior when the larger system is looked at.

IMHO, “hedonics”, as described in economics is a way of discussing “level-jumping” sustainability in virtual design. Here is the standard definition of hedonics. One looks at “product quality” and price. A good example is Internet surfing. Compared to 10 years ago, it can be argued that the “quality” of Internet access – in terms of rich media and information – has gone up. Under hedonics, we would then compute that that the cost of Internet access has actually fallen – even if the price has unchanged. That is because you are getting more “quality” for the buck, so your buck buys more “unit quality”.

A negative example can clarify further. In recessions, people might substitute cheap cuts of beef for expensive ones. If we apply hedonics, we might say that the overall “quality” of the meal is unchanged, so the “standard of living” is also unchanged, even though people are buying hamburger instead of steak.

Of course, this is debatable. Many groups take US BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) to task for applying hedonics, often blunting the impact of price rises by adjusting for an increased quality. Stuff doesn’t really cost less, and the “quality” is a non-quantitative judgment. But’s let’s run with it, remapping into virtual design.

Where does hedonics fit in sustainable virtual design? Progressive Enhancement and Responsive Design – but aimed at Art Direction, not just front-end layout and development.

Here’s the classic book on Progressive Enhancement, btw:

Under the Progressive Enhancement paradigm, “quality” is confined to task completion. A site user needs to complete certain tasks to use the site effectively. The designer/developer team makes sure that tasks can be completed on all devices. Thus, a desktop version of the site, with lots of Ajax is “steak”, and an old-school mobile version relying on server-side code for everything is “burger”.  As long as tasks are completed on desktop and mobile, the two sites can be compared. The desktop Ajax version has higher “quality” due to its interactive features, and is “worth more”.

The same analysis can be applied to Responsive Design, even more so than Progressive Enhancement.

Best book on Responsive Design:

Here, we try to make a site with a flexible grid, which adjusts seamlessly between various monitor sizes or “device groups”. Each layout is optimized for the device it runs on. Therefore, even if the mobile shows less, it has the same “quality”. Unlike Progressive Enhancement, desktop designs are not “worth more” than mobile layouts.

How does this figure into sustainability? Imagine we are doing our Art Direction for a site. The resulting work is “heavy”. The designer might then design a series of simpler designs – but with the idea that they have the same “quality” in the correct context. Resource-limited devices (e.g. mobile) would get the same “quality” of design, even if the design was simpler than that aimed at desktops awash in rendering power.

It goes further. In a future sustainable artwork pipeline, the artist might design a series of equivalent “quality” designs which were progressively simpler to render and deliver to the end user. During development, one of these designs, or a subset, might be chosen. The high-end would be rejected due to the increased carbon footprint of the web page. The low end might be rejected because it, like hambuger, was not really equivalent to steak.

So, in the future, we might ask if the following images are hedonically equivalent:

virtual hedonics, as applied to a famous director - three images, with progressively more bits to source
Virtual hedonics, applied to a famous director (sources are in the image description)

The leftmost image costs the least in download and rendering (though we might want to invert it to minimize energy use on LCD monitors).

Now, consider a future design meeting, where the Art Director has to use the left, rather than the right image, for the site to meet it’s sustainability goals. It is argued that the leftmost image is hedonically equivalent to those on the right. Yeow!

We’re applying “level jumping”, looking at the larger system, and using that to drive decisions lower down. It implies that someone who does Art Direction must understand how easy or energy-intensive their design would be when actually rendered. Right now, this doesn’t happen at all. Typically, the Art Director delivers the design, finished, and fully-realized to the front-end developer, who sweats to make it as close as possible to the original design.

Often, a perfect match requires code-bloat – extra libraries, higher-resolution media, complex layout that moves us away from a low-impact page.

In other words, the Art Director’s ignorance of what’s required to implement their design increased the carbon footprint of the page.

In hedonic terms, the cost of making the page available to consumers is higher

In physical sustainability (pollution) terms, we need a carbon credit to balance out our increased carbon footprint for the page.

Now, if we shift to ‘low-impact’ art (typographic layouts, simple images, “roadsign” look and feel).

In hedonic terms, the cost of the page has dropped, even if people pay the same amount of electricity to deliver and render it.

In physical sustainability (pollution) terms:

 We just got a carbon credit we can use… 

…to offset reckless design and/or coding elsewhere in our site


Now, consider Windows 7 mobile versus Window 8 mobile:

Compare the user interface of win7 mobile to win8 mobile
Win7 mobile vs Win8 mobile

iOS5 versus Win8 on tablets

On top of that, Win8 uses less memory and CPU cycles than Win7

Win7 compared to Win8, showing lower memory and cpu cycle use by win8
Win7 versus Win8, memory and CPU cycles

Once again, Msft is looking like the good guy. It also looks like we might justify a switch to a “street sign”, “graphic design Swiss Style” user interface on sustainability grounds. In fact, if Win8 is easier to use (according to the economic definition of hedonics) Bureau of Labor Statistics can drop the cost of Win8 mobile in their economics calculations!

This goes back to my earlier point – sustainable design teams should be “hybrids” – each team member understanding lots of what the other do.

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