Designing a greener web: An interview with Gerry McGovern

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An expert in digital customer experience, Gerry McGovern believes it’s time to rethink the way we design and develop products.

9 min read

Gerry McGovern and his book, World Wide Waste.

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Gerry McGovern built his career on helping large organisations deliver a better digital customer experience. At the centre is a research method called Top Tasks, which he developed and refined over the course of 15 years. It focuses on identifying what matters most to customers and simplifying websites accordingly. Gerry discovered that if you removed around 80 to 90 percent of a site’s content, a company would sell more products, their support calls would drop, and customers would find what they were looking for faster. Recently, when reviewing his career, Gerry realised that his obsession with simplification could also benefit the environment, which led him to write World Wide Waste, a book about how digital is killing our planet and what we can do about it.

“Climate change had been on my mind for a while,” Gerry remembers. “Initially, I thought I was lucky because I was working in digital, and it’s green, right? But then it just struck me that everything in digital is electrical, and I began to think about all the work I’ve done in the last 25 years. Whenever I consult with an organisation, I’d find that 90 percent of either their content, data, or architecture would be waste. If you take sales management systems, for example, 49 out of 50 PowerPoint presentations are crap. They include the wrong pricing, or are just half done, and then I realised they all have to be stored. That’s just extraordinarily wasteful!”

Gerry started exploring how digital was affecting the climate, and found it to be the fastest growing user of energy and emitter of CO2. It was a real eye opener.

“Let’s look at just one specific area, the fashion industry,” Gerry suggests. “Our Instagram culture has accelerated fast fashion. We buy five times more clothes than 20 years ago, and we wear them for half as long. Most of them end up being dumped. Globally, the equivalent of an entire garbage truck full of textiles is dumped or burned every second, and because these clothes are increasingly made out of plastic, they’re toxic. We would need to plant 12 trillion trees to offset that sort of pollution, which happens to be four times more trees than currently exist on Earth. Digital doesn’t just consume energy, it also creates a culture of waste and impermanence.”

Gerry McGovern

"Designing for the customer and user experience is definitely progress but we have to think beyond it because digital has created a culture of waste, overconsumption, and overconvenience."

Greener design decisions

While a lot of companies are committed to renewable energy, we will also need to rethink our design and development decisions to really make a difference. Gerry points out that we have been blind to the hidden energy costs and wasteful habits of digital and has made it his mission to raise awareness, especially among digital professionals.

To accompany his book, he launched a podcast also called World Wide Waste (part of the Human Centered Design Network), in which he talks to designers who are pioneering green digital thinking and methods. The first episode featured Jeremy Keith, followed by Eric Meyer, Karen Peeters, Erika Hall, and more.

“I’m inviting people who are doing work in this space and can come up with strategies that help us become more environmentally conscious in the way we work. I’m calling it the earth experience,” Gerry explains. “Designing for the customer and user experience is definitely progress but we have to think beyond it because digital has created a culture of waste, overconsumption, and overconvenience. We tend to choose the option that makes our life easier. Over the course of 15 years, the average web page has gone from 400KB to 4MB, and a huge amount of that is unnecessary. We probably don’t need 90 percent of the JavaScript and the CSS!”

“I interviewed Eric Meyer for the podcast, and he said that for a while he used a pretty good industry tool to optimise his images but when he spent a bit more time and effort on trying out other more customised tools, he managed to really fine-tune them, reducing the image size by another 80 percent. Most of us don’t have the time to do a good job anymore. We have become production line creators and use standard Swiss army knives for everything. We use them when really we only need a little tweak. It all has an impact. When it takes ages to download a site on mobile, are we even still creating a quality product?”

All too often, web design and development best practices are not the focus of management, leading to a bad user experience. When Gerry talked to a senior executive at Toyota for the podcast, he learned that the car giant is obsessed with the quality of its cars but until recently didn’t consider quality in a web context.

“Now they’re also establishing the need for a page to download quickly,” Gerry points out. “Imagine putting the foot on your car’s accelerator, and it goes to a maximum of 60 kilometres an hour. Well, that’s the same feeling as waiting for a page to download. If it takes five seconds, that’s a bad experience. It’s as bad as a badly designed wheel or engine, yet so many websites are full of crap, whether it’s images, unnecessary custom fonts, or poor code.”

Designers who are aware of the issues often struggle to get buy-in and come up against the pressure to deliver.

“In nine out of 10 cases, delivering stuff faster is rewarded more than delivering quality more slowly. It’s a culture of volume. Focus on what matters and don’t create apps for the sake of it. The purpose is important, not having an app or a dashboard. If we asked some really foundational questions, and trained ourselves to understand the true impact of digital and the consequences of our decisions, we’d design a hundred times better. We need to get away from the cult of surface design and the focus on the immediate wow factor, which still drives a lot of design on corporate websites. But whether you look at Google, Twitter, Amazon, eBay or Facebook, we have so much evidence that those who succeed did not go down that path.”

World Wide Waste book by Gerry McGovern
The ebook size of World Wide Waste, all in black and white without any images or tables, is 94 percent smaller than Gerry’s previous book, even though it’s 20 percent longer.

Embrace local and remove what’s not necessary

We also need to start cleaning up after ourselves. By way of an example, Gerry points out that when you store an image in the cloud, you make a copy every time you change it, which means there could be 40 copies that you might not even be aware of. Gerry suggests embracing local instead.

“Multitudinal studies show that 90 percent of data is never accessed again just three months after it’s created. So at least try and store as much data as possible on a hard drive. It consumes 3000 times less energy in many scenarios than if you stored it in the cloud. I only keep the stuff that is current and that I’m working on and need to share in the cloud. All the other stuff I archive and keep locally. It’s 150 times more energy efficient than immediately accessible storage.”