The User Experience Challenge of Carbon Footprint Tracking Apps
December 13, 2021
Several years ago, I joined the team at Tomorrow with a lofty goal - after successfully building the most popular online tool for tracking the carbon footprint of electricity around the world, electricityMap, the next logical step seemed to be to build the tools to let individuals track their entire carbon footprint.
The timing seemed right - climate change awareness was booming, and enough technology lived in every smartphone that it was conceivable that tracking of the underlying activities that resulted in emissions could be largely automated. We recognised a problem that I’ve seen countless times cited in climate tech company websites and decks - people are worried about climate change, but don’t know how to take action. A mobile app tracking your carbon footprint and giving you intelligent insights on how to reduce it seemed like the answer.
I won’t go into the details of why we ended up closing down the project - we wrote a blog post explaining our reasons here. But since then, one aspect of that experience that stuck with me was an insight about user experience, and one that applies to all the carbon footprint tracking apps that I’ve tried: Carbon footprint tracking apps don’t have enough interesting information to make me check them often.
I was very proud of the design of North (of which I can take very little credit - my colleague Olivier did an incredible job here) - the way we used bubbles of relative sizes to denote the CO2 equivalent of various activities quickly taught the user the magnitude of difference between activities such as riding the train to work, taking a transatlantic flight, or eating a burger. Many other apps and online calculators do a great job providing similarly helpful information, and at least for us, the first time a user saw this visualisation, it was often the “wow” moment that any product team hopes for when users try the product.
I had the same “wow” moment when I first started tracking my footprint in our app. It gave me a similar feeling to the one I would get after reading articles or studies about the carbon footprint of certain activities - a sense of wanting to change and improve my habits to live more within the planet’s boundaries. But after these initial insights, I found I had little motivation to keep checking the app. I wasn’t getting meaningful, new information or feedback compared to what I got when I first onboarded myself and saw some initial emissions data.
The qualitative and quantitative data from our initial users showed a similar pattern. Despite great initial feedback, incentivising ongoing engagement was challenging.
While I’m not suggesting that our experience was representative - there are many talented designers building amazing products in this space. But based on my anecdotal observations of dwindling interest and funding going into carbon footprint tracking apps, as well as seeing other teams pivot just as we did, I think there could be a universal challenge here: personal carbon footprint data is interesting the first time you see it, and perhaps also interesting if you can see a difference after changing your behaviour, but eventually there’s nothing new to see - your day to day activities are consistent enough that checking an app often won’t tell you anything new and interesting, and the knowledge you gain from your initial footprint data gives you the mental framework to think about the marginal footprint of activities such as taking a train instead of flying without using an app.
At the root of this issue is perhaps a classic disconnect between consumer’s stated preferences and actual behaviour - in many cases, when asked, we’re over-optimistic about what we will and won’t do, in this case monitoring our carbon footprints on a regular basis.
Our anecdotal experience brought me to the following hypothesis: I don’t think most people think about their carbon footprint in a quantitative way; rather they view it as a series qualitative decisions taken every day. For example, I would rather eat a vegetarian dish than a meat dish because I know the vegetarian dish will most likely have a lower carbon footprint, but I won’t bother to find out the exact numbers.
Ultimately, creating tools to engage people around the climate consequences of their individual choices is incredibly challenging, but important work (I’m not going to go into the relative importance of this versus influencing the behaviour of corporations, politicians, etc.). From my experience so far, I’ve come to believe that the UX needs of a consumer-facing app or digital service don’t match how most people think about their carbon footprint.
That all being said, I’d love to be proven wrong - if anyone has examples of stellar carbon footprint tracking apps that work for them, I’d love to hear about them! Additionally, I’d love to hear about any studies done that might confirm or contradict the hypotheses I’ve laid out here. I’m not trying to make a bulletproof assertion, but rather share my conclusion from our experience and (hopefully) other folks’ conclusions on this problem and start a conversation!