XXXI.4 July - August 2024
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Toward Reuser Experience

Melissa Gregg

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What kind of information will designers and technology users need in a changed climate? Are the practices of design and engineering currently working in the interests of this kind of knowledge—and if not, why not? This column is an opportunity for me to share new ideas and methods that will be required if HCI and design are to thrive in a future that is already threatening the ecological resources underpinning computing. It's inspired by observations from working in user experience research for the past decade and, more recently, in the area of sustainability and environmental impact in green hardware and software.

In my most recent job at Intel, I built the first product team with a mandate to engage engineers in the work of corporate responsibility, setting standards and establishing proof-of-concept initiatives to meet net-zero targets. Our task was to work with customers to collaboratively reduce so-called Scope 3 carbon emissions (primarily, the amount of energy used by products when they are in customers' hands, in operation).

Prior to this, I worked with user experience teams dedicated to defining feature priorities for mainstream computer platforms. What I found from this combination of professional roles is that there is a substantial gap between those working in climate tech and those with the anthropological or human-centered expertise that will be needed for new product initiatives to succeed.

Expertise in human cultures and behavior change, as well as individual and social psychology, will be pivotal for adaptation to an unstable climate, yet these skills are rare in the leadership teams building complex technical products today. In this column, I'll share examples of activists, designers, and theorists whose insights provide vital contributions to influence organizations and business norms toward more responsible outcomes.

back to top  Timing Is Everything

UX research and sustainability advocacy each take a certain idea of time for granted. Consider the classic approach to studying consumer attitudes to a new technology: the out-of-box experience, or OOB. This technique involves following what happens from the moment the box is opened through to the successful set up and operation of the product. Any difficulties encountered during onboarding are noted by researchers to feed back to design and engineering for improvement.

The OOB method predates the popular genre of social media content now dedicated to unboxing. Both practices share some of the excitement and hope that attends the beginning of a relationship with a product. As sustainable design advocate Joe Macleod argues, the experience of starting these relationships is increasingly efficient, but "we have almost completely overlooked how to stop them. The digital industry is in denial about endings" [1].

Can we incentivize more sustainable pleasures by celebrating the ephemerality of ownership?

When a product reaches "end of life," as the business world calls it, reuse is the most environmentally welcome outcome to reduce the environmental impact of its production. In North America, among other advanced economies, original equipment manufacturers such as Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Apple provide take-back services for products that are no longer wanted, whether through mail-back costs, drop-off destinations, or even doorstep pickups in certain neighborhoods. These reverse logistics solutions enable products to be resold through digital platforms or auctioned to wholesalers that operate domestically and internationally. Retailers are also investing in "re-commerce" trade, which became popular when fresh hardware stocks were depleted during the Covid pandemic.

One of the biggest barriers to this type of reuse is the volume of idle electronics in homes and workplaces. The Circular Electronics Partnership states that "80% of e-waste is not collected for recycling with 76% not documented" [2]. It's a problem of inertia as much as infrastructure—a human rather than a technical challenge. Researchers even have a name for this prolonged state of device inactivity: electronics hibernation [3]. The issue it presents is that the longer such devices are out of circulation, the shorter the time window for them to be given to another owner.

Interviews reveal that people hold on to their devices for a range of reasons. They don't know how or where to dispose of electronics locally, for instance, or they want a backup in case the new device fails. Often, it's a problem of time. Important files and photos may need sorting into more permanent storage locations. The transfer costs of moving data around can seem overwhelming or even just boring. For those who can already afford to upgrade, there isn't much financial incentive to profit from reuse.


The fact remains that when digital objects are left idle or in storage, reuse becomes harder. The software needed to keep hardware running requires constant maintenance, and may pose a security risk without upgrades. In our research at Intel, led by Caroline Foster, even when people did try to log in to an old device, there were often unforeseen problems. A crucial connecting cable was missing, or a forgotten password rendered the system useless.

The software required to facilitate hardware reuse is a growing concern. With large companies like Microsoft, Samsung, and Apple setting the terms on which repair technicians can operate, it is becoming harder to run open source alternatives to cloud-dependent computing services. Software and hardware increasingly work together with the same time frame and use-by dates, despite these having no necessary correspondence. It is simply in the interests of the business model behind the operating system.

back to top  Toward Reuser Experience

Product stewardship, circular design, and cradle-to-cradle thinking are some of the common design approaches currently being used to tackle reuse [4]. Emphasis is placed on making best use of the resources embodied in a product, through repurposing, gifting, recycling, and more. The cradle-to-cradle concept is a tweak on industry terminology supporting "cradle to grave" product development (or the even more distasteful term, still heard on occasion, "womb to tomb"). The implication is that companies should take responsibility for the product through each "life stage," thereby anthropomorphizing the object.

But it is increasingly apparent that the waste problem exists because there has not been enough emphasis on product endings. No one actually follows through on the lifelong commitment, largely because the rituals are missing to ensure that technology users find closure. To gracefully complete the device relationship—and, as the current trend-setters call it, "consciously uncouple"—we need to establish reuser experience as a core competency.

What should designers do differently to ensure a better reuser experience? Can companies profit from making this process delightful? In our previous Intel work, we suggested a "closing ceremony" for the PC, with an AI recapping greatest hits and memories taking place on the device over its life span. Taking this further, a range of spiritual or mythological stories might offer a bigger perspective on the resources utilized by the PC, and how they can be set free after a first owner. This raises new prompts for creative innovation: In what ways could a product be reincarnated for further lives? How many users could a device optimally enjoy?

These exercises in imaginative thinking need not be abstract. Regulatory discussions are increasingly shifting toward proving custodianship and responsible sourcing of products and the supply chain of components. What better role for HCI and design to play, then, than to catalyze the enthusiasm first bestowed on a product out-of-box to subsequent users? Can we incentivize more sustainable pleasures by celebrating the ephemerality of ownership?

Another method to consider is archival. The reason I could discover Carrie Snyder and John Rooks's electronics hibernation study [3] is because of its open source status. This decision to share accumulated insights on sustainable user experience recognizes that time is of the essence to help businesses transition to new practices quickly, at industry scale.

Each of these ideas—designing for reuse and ensuring open access to sustainability insights—summons a future HCI that is less about serving individual user or singular company needs and more about providing resources that guide our energy and capability for thriving on a finite planet for the longer term.

back to top  References

1. Macleod, J. Ends: Why We Overlook Endings for Humans, Products, Services and Digital. And Why We Shouldn't. Joe Macleod, 2017.

2. Circular Electronics Partnership. Unlocking collective action for a circular electronics industry;

3. Snyder, C. and Rooks, J. Breaking up with our products: Encouraging electronics product dis-attachment to enable secondary uses. Proc. of 2021 Product Lifetimes and the Environment Conference. University of Limerick, Limerick, IRL, 2021.

4. McDonough, W. and Braungart, M. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press, New York, 2002.

back to top  Author

Melissa Gregg is a consultant, ethnographer, and sustainability strategist. For 2023–2024, she is also Senior Industry Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society at RMIT University. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2024 ACM, Inc.

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