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Conversations about sustainability lead to action - but measurable goals are needed

Published in Design

Written by

Satu Heikuksela
Principal Service Designer

Satu Heikuksela is a Principal Designer at Nitor with over 20 years of experience in service and UX design.

Her passion is to involve the service users in design making and to understand the challenges they face when using services in order to design the best possible user experience. In her free time, she loves water sports, biking and yoga.


June 15, 2023 · 5 min read time

As a Service Designer, I often wonder how to make a positive impact in projects regarding sustainability and social responsibility. The best way to approach problem-solving is to make the right people have more conversations about sustainability early on, i.e., in the vision phase of all the service and product development projects. Many organisations hire sustainability experts, which is great, but the knowledge will spread faster when we, Service Designers, can better facilitate the conversation.

At the end of February 2023, I attended IxDA 23, an annual service design conference, this year held in Zürich, Switzerland. There I discovered a concrete tool that helps systematically bring up sustainability-related questions with our clients. I learned this from a workshop called "Rethinking design metrics – a holistic approach to measure impact."  

Susanne Griffel and Sandra Junglas from the digital agency Denkwerk facilitated a workshop to present concrete ways for integrating positive impact into the company's vision work. To make this happen, companies must establish sustainability and corporate social responsibility goals early in product and service strategies. Here are my key learnings from the workshop. 

A new framework for including sustainability in the value proposition 

From Griffel and Junglas, I discovered a framework that utilises the basis of a value proposition workshop but adds a new layer to it. The intriguing twist lies in including sustainability-related values as an extra iteration in the product vision and value conversation. 

After diving into the business benefits and value proposition for the user, workshop facilitators guide the stakeholders into a discussion about sustainability and social responsibility – what makes their product or service successfully sustainable. Facilitators can support and spark the conversation with a set of questions: 

  • Is your product inclusive and equally accessible? 

  • Are you credible in what you do and in what you offer? 

  • Do you develop your product in a resource-saving way? 

  • What does your customer consider sustainable and expect from your company? 

  • What kind of values does your product or service represent? 

Once a shared understanding of the value proposition is established based on user needs, business benefits, and sustainability requirements, the facilitator guides attendees through another round of iteration to focus on the goals they want to achieve. The result of that round is to narrow down four specific goals per area, leading to total of 12 concrete goals for user needs, business requirements, and sustainability. Limiting the number of goals creates focus and direction. 

Now, sustainability entails many aspects, from social responsibility to the green code, and people may have different views on what is good for society or the environment. To ensure everyone is on the same page, it is ideal to include an introduction to the field of sustainability and what it means in the specific context of the workshop. This could be a pre-assignment or a concise starter conversation to kick off the actual work. The workshop should be prepared together with the stakeholders so that the sustainability aspect is not a surprise number but aligned with the company’s sustainability strategy.   

From processes to people: best practices to ensure well-thought decisions 

On paper, the process seems straightforward, but it is important to note a couple of practicalities. For instance, if you don't have enough time allocated for conversations that should require deep thinking, it's easy to end up in a trap of superficial decisions. This, in turn, leads quickly to cursory greenwashing campaigns rather than actual impact.  

The facilitator plays a crucial role in offering tools for the participants to discuss how to justify the sustainability aspects you claim your service to offer. There are plenty of greenwashing cases where haphazard actions have backfired, and those mistakes should be avoided.  

The framework described above guides the discussion, and iterative discussion rounds will help to clarify the challenging sustainability topics. However, it takes time and commitment from the participants. Also, the facilitator needs a good understanding of sustainability and sensitivity as the matter is still new for all organisations.   

Meaningful metrics deliver sustainable results 

In terms of improving sustainability, settling for goals alone won't get the job done – we need metrics to ensure progress and enable accountability. But first, it's essential to discuss what kind of signals indicate we are reaching our goals. Otherwise, it's nearly impossible to choose meaningful metrics that prove results.  

For example, if the value proposition includes an onboarding within five minutes, and the goal is to achieve high customer satisfaction, what kind of signals should we be looking at? Probably the number of customers that were successfully onboarded, the statistics on how long the onboarding took, or whether the users gave good ratings. On the other hand, the number of customers dropping before completed onboarding would be another telling sign.

Once relevant signals are identified, the team picks the metrics they want to follow up on. They should be measurable and possible to follow at least monthly, such as monthly active users (MAU). For many metrics, seeing a possible deviation compared to the previous month or any relevant period is helpful because that trend shows if things have changed. It's also important to be critical and analyse if the selected metric is not helping your team to reach the goal you are trying to achieve.   

The team must follow its metrics regularly, and setting up alarms is often helpful. For example, if customer satisfaction suddenly drops, the team needs to find out quickly what is wrong and correct the situation. So, for customer satisfaction, the alarm could trigger when more than 3 customers give a rating of 2/5 or below within 7 days. This would alert the Product Owner to take immediate action. 

Metric cards: an easy way to facilitate conversations 

Griffel and Junglas have developed a useful deck of Metric cards to give facilitators and teams more tools to select the right metrics for their cases. Each card includes examples of metrics associated with its topics. Titles include, for example, Sustainability, Usability, Effort, Sales impact, Likeability, Retention, etc. This is an effortless way to start a conversation, but it's important to note that the pre-given metrics may not fit all businesses. That's why organisations can benefit from creating their own metrics cards. 

Metrics cards in sustainable design process - Satu Heikuksela

Metrics cards used in IxDA23 Rethinking design metrics workshop.

Co-creating the card set with a multi-disciplined team ensures it is relevant for the entire business. In addition to making metric-setting easier for the team, the organisation-specific metric cards also raise awareness of important topics and values. 

I like using metrics cards very much. They help include sustainability goals and metrics in the company's strategic work. I'm sure organisations can achieve better outcomes when the right stakeholders are present, and sustainability goals and values enter the conversations more often.

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Written by

Satu Heikuksela
Principal Service Designer

Satu Heikuksela is a Principal Designer at Nitor with over 20 years of experience in service and UX design.

Her passion is to involve the service users in design making and to understand the challenges they face when using services in order to design the best possible user experience. In her free time, she loves water sports, biking and yoga.