The electronic
industry has an increasing responsibility in the production of toxical
components and e-waste. Careless strategies are leading to irresponsible
designs such as the growing number of products (heart rate monitor for
sports/fitness, digital thermometers for measuring fever, active RFID,
toys,…) which are sealed to deliberately prevent the user to change the
battery. As a result, when the battery needs to be replaced, the user is forced
to throw away the product (although it could perfectly function with a new
battery) and buy a new one.

One of today’s sessions (called Green
) at CHI 2008 has been devoted to sustainable design and users’
perception of sustainability. To understand the latter Kristin Hanks and
colleagues at the University of Indiana Indiana University has studied more than 400 students in
the 18-21 age range, belonging to the so-called Net generation, a significant producer of e-waste. The results of the research, presented during the afternoon
CHI 2008 are not encouraging. I’ve asked a few quick questions to one of the
authors (Eli Blevis, see picture on the left):

How much sustainable
is the electronics industry today?

”It could be a lot better. Major issues include: e-waste, frequent obsolescence,
early disposal, toxic material components, concealment of energy use, power
used by computer servers, and the ways in which computers do not promote
sensible energy use—for example, a laptop could be designed to set its energy
savings mode itself based on user behaviors, rather than expect users to select
the most efficient settings.”

What are the "material effects of
interactive technologies"?

”The material effects are the
possible consequences resulting from the invention and disposal of interactive
technologies. Last year, we described these effects in a specific paper on sustainable interaction
. In short, they include disposal,
salvage, recycling, remanufacturing for reuse, reuse as is, achieving longevity
of use, sharing for maximal use, achieving heirloom status, finding wholesome
alternatives to use, and active repair of misuse

Based on your research, what are the attitudes of the Net
generation towards sustainability issues?

”There is some concern about global warming, but concern doesn’t always
translate into action. For example, survey participants who stated that they
were concerned about the environment, did not claim different behaviors with
respect to consumption than people who stated a lack of concern for the
environment. One telling result is that
38.2% of participants had owned 4-8 cell
phones in their lifetime, the more striking given that the average age of the
participants was only 19.7 years.“

How did
you reach these findings with users? Did you find any surprising behavior?

“We did a
survey of 435 undergraduate students and we found lots of interesting
behaviors. We invite readers to take a look at our CHI2008 paper because it is important
to see these behaviors in relation to one another, and not reductively.”

How do you think we should design devices and applications to take into account
your findings ?

“In the
paper we present today, we have given a chart (see figure below, click to enlarge) to suggest
different approaches for different kinds of people. It is a good summary of our
advice and it is explained more fully in the paper as well as in a short article.”

 © 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.