The problem
Google first launched Gmail, its free advertising-supported webmail service with support for email clients, to the public in April 2004. Initially only utilized as an internal email system for Google employees, Gmail considered the necessity of a larger amount of space in order to keep and search through a large amount of emails. Gmail ultimately provided users with 1 GB of space, compared to the 2 to 4 MB provided by other email services as the time.​​​​​​​
Since launch, Gmail has given users the opportunity to increase the amount of space available to house all of their emails and accompanying attachments, despite the digital sector accounting for 4% of global CO2 emissions in 2020, i.e. more than the aviation sector, and continues to grow much faster than other sectors. “It is important to recognize that data traffic — such as email — does have an energy and carbon penalty,” said Susanne Baker, associate director for climate, environment and sustainability at TechUK, a non-profit industry group.
I designed a feature that guided Gmail users to quickly and efficiently delete and unsubscribe from emails, therefore lowering their email’s carbon footprint.
The outcome
My solution is still a work in progress. Check back soon!
My contribution
I led the full design of this case study.
There is currently no efficient way to delete unwanted emails and unsubscribe from forgotten or unwanted subscriptions in the native Gmail web application. As more and more people become interested in making individual contributions to combating climate change, users will be interested in lowering their digital carbon footprint in a simple way.
There is a business opportunity in designing a feature in which users manage their unwanted emails and subscriptions, which will allow Gmail to fill a gap in existing sustainability efforts by lowering carbon footprint rather than retroactively offsetting it. Additionally, users will not have to pay for increased storage on their Gmail account as unwanted emails pile up.
As a result, Gmail users will feel good about mitigating climate change, while learning about their digital carbon footprint and organizing their inbox.
Tying it all together
My goal is to design a new Gmail feature that allows users to manage their inbox and email subscriptions to lower their digital carbon footprint.
Gmail currently allows users to keep at least 1 gigabyte of emails, many of which are unwanted and contributing to a higher digital carbon footprint.
Competitive Research
I looked at 5 applications that focused on email inbox management, 4 applications that focused on evaluating and lowering users’ carbon footprints, and 1 application that focused on educating users on managing a more environmentally friendly inbox. Through my search for competitors, I found a need for a more user-friendly and inbox-integrated email management feature.
Through analyzing each of these apps and their user reviews, I found that:

Email inbox management applications:
- are typically found too expensive by users
- often have too many features and users either do not use all of them, or do not understand how to use all of them
- still requires the user to input information manually in order to unsubscribe from unwanted emails
- are not integrated into users’ native email applications

Carbon footprint tracker applications:
- only provide reminders for actions to lower carbon footprint, but are not actionable or tracked enough to become sustainable habits
- do not show actual impact of making sustainable changes to lower carbon footprint

Email inbox management and carbon footprint tracker application (Cleanfox):
- takes a long time to scan entire inbox for emails
- requires an initial configuration that concerns users about what data they are sharing access to

Key findings that stood out:
Only 1 app exists to educate users on digital carbon footprint while managing their email inbox
Only 1 app exists to educate users on digital carbon footprint while managing their email inbox
100% of inbox apps analyzed are not integrated into the native email application, requiring extra steps in email management.
100% of inbox apps analyzed are not integrated into the native email application, requiring extra steps in email management.
Information architecture & wireframing
Armed with the information of what similar inbox management and carbon footprint tracker apps, I was able to identify the best user flow to begin designing and ultimately prove or disprove through usability testing. From there, I began sketching screens to potentially wireframe and build prototypes from.
After sketching, I created a wireframes for the version that emphasized the main action: managing the users’ inbox through deleting unwanted emails and unsubscribing from the sender, deleting unwanted emails but remaining subscribed to the sender’s emails, or keeping all emails and remaining subscribed to future emails from the sender. I identified the secondary action as watching the users’ digital carbon footprint change as they managed their inbox, as well as learning more about digital carbon footprints by comparing it to a physical carbon footprint. Additionally, I included buttons for “lifetime stats” and “full education” for users to view their lifetime impact through managing their email inbox and learn more about digital carbon footprints in general, ideally to be added in a future version of the feature.

One the wireframes were complete, I created a low fidelity prototype to usability test. This lo-fi prototype focused on introducing the user to the new Gmail Clean feature, viewing both card view and list view, and managing their inbox by deleting and unsubscribing, deleting, and keeping emails from various senders. 
Usability Test Insights
After sketching, wireframing, and building out a low fidelity prototype, I conducted initial usability tests with 2 current Gmail users. Users were tasked with first logging into a fictional Gmail account, interacting with the Gmail Clean introduction modal, and keeping emails from certain senders to inbox, unsubscribing from emails from certain senders, and unsubscribing and deleting all emails from certain senders.

These usability tests brought a few insights to light:

100% of users mentioned during their usability tests that they had just recently become aware of what a digital carbon footprint is, and were eager to take part in lowering theirs. Users were very interested in taking small actions to practice sustainability. This confirmed my finding during initial research that the vast majority of Americans understand global warming requires individual action.​​​​​​​
After my initial two usability tests, I had a scheduled meeting with my mentor to go over progress on this project. My mentor pointed out the lack of accessibility in the current prototype, due to the reliance on icon-only buttons to complete tasks. At this point, I paused usability tests in order to ensure the prototype was accessible.
Next Steps
At this point in my case study, I am working through a second version of a low-fidelity prototype to ensure accessibility. When that is complete, I plan to run at least three more usability test with Gmail users. Pending the results of these usability tests, I will either retool the lo-fi prototype as necessary and run more usability tests, or begin working on a high-fidelity prototype. Finally, I will run final usability tests on the hi-fi prototype.

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