Responsible full stack

How to build a responsible full stack

The need for "sustainability" regulations started to emerge in Europe in the 1990s with the increasing use of the Internet, computer hardware and software in business. This article takes a look at the origins of digital responsibility, explains what is means and talks about what’s involved.

The growth of digital responsibility

The notion of Digital Responsibility was developed in France around energy saving and the recycling of hardware in the first ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) and sustainable development report in 2008. This was followed by the development of good practices and eco-design techniques for software solutions, extending the subject to accessibility and the ethical design of offerings.

For all projects involving data from the EU, the protection of personal information, as controlled by the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), completed the picture in 2018. Swiss national data had already been covered by the federal law on data protection (LPD), which was established in June 1992.

Even though many services and goods are still delivered in a physical and tangible form, few if any commercial or non-profit organizations completely forgo the use of digital solutions to manage certain aspects of their operations, such as project tracking, logistics, invoicing, human resources, sales platforms, and more.

Whatever their raison d'être, but with specific business and regulatory needs including Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) obligations, many companies choose to invest in the development of customized solutions rather than using market solutions. This complementary activity of design and development of management applications, often requiring the involvement of a specialized company, mainly falls into two categories of the Responsible Digital Challenge:

  • Either the creation/adaption of tailor-made applications to support the company's CSR strategy (IT for Green)
  • Or the reduction of the environmental and social impact of applications linked to the company's operations (Green for IT)

Created to manage products or services, this software ensures that the promise is implemented for a defined end-target and controlled by the issuing company, returning to the original meaning of the word responsibility.

What does being responsible mean?

To be "responsible" means being "accountable". In a positive sense, a responsible person or entity is aware of its environment, its stakes, its duties, its risks and acts rationally to achieve the best result without damage. Software - and therefore its designers - is responsible for what it governs: what it seeks to process, how it processes it and how it serves the information and to whom. As for the design and development team, whether internal or external, it must fully understand the needs behind the requested functionalities: both the operational business and its context and the regulatory obligations in order to rationalize its effort with a view to an improvement of the digital impact of its solution.

A Responsible Digital strategy involves all digital professionals (Project Manager, Product Owner, Data Scientist, UX Designers, UI Designer, Developers, etc.) as well as suppliers from the design of the solution to its realization and life cycle (hosting companies, outsourcers, third-party publishers, etc.). By foreseeing the dangers of data exploitation and processing automation, they seek to have the greatest possible “good” influence on the services to which they contribute, on the people they involve, and on the resources they use.

3 examples of responsible digital best practices

Restrict the number of features of the application

Many software applications in a company can already partially produce the same result or an approximation of a "new" expected result expressed in a project (e.g.: managing schedules is possible on various tools such as Notion, Teams, Assana, iLuca, Jira, etc). Identifying redundancies and priorities then allows for arbitration. By focusing on the business value via the expected user experience, certain functionalities can be questioned: choose not to develop, to integrate third-party services rather than develop from scratch or to develop the bare minimum to create bridges and allow continuity between tools. Let's look at how responsible digital thinking can limit risks:

  • Economical: Rethinking the scope with a digitally sober approach typically lowers the direct development bill, which can easily exceed tens of thousands of euros, but it also may reduce the time required to train future users on the new solution, a cost that is frequently overlooked in internal project costings.
  • Environmental: Data centers are constructed using scarce, non-renewable, and non-recyclable metals (such cobalt), which are harvested using polluting methods under unfavorable working circumstances in underdeveloped areas. Rationalizing the need for server resources helps to avoid the multiplication of orders and operations of these costly machines in terms of GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions.
  • Legal/social: Limiting the number of features means the end user (employee) spends less time learning how to do their job.

Ask for or gather information that is specifically required for the service to operate properly.

Data minimization benefits both service providers and clients, whether internal or B2B, B2B2C, or B2C. The general public, employees, and businesses are becoming more and more conscious that their personal and professional data, no matter how modest, has value and that there is a risk of fraud or improper appropriation. Some information systems are reluctant to be used or even rejected because of areas of uncertainty and reliability concerns. Thinking about the need to obtain this data, its direct use for the proper functioning of the service and a clear specification of user/administrator rights is a responsible approach that will limit the risks of rejection. The benefits will be:

  • Economical: The cost of security to provide for anonymization procedures, reliable authentication services, and other means of preservation increases with the sensitivity of the data's classification. Less data means less cost and a budget focused on essential data.
  • Environmental: A data center consumes the water of 6.5 Olympic swimming pools per day, can consume the energy of 80,000 homes, and its end-of-life terminals generate several million tons of waste each year. By not storing uncontrolled and unused big data, you can help reduce the demand for machines in your data center.
  • Legal/social: User transparency and trust facilitate the adoption of solutions, limits potential data leaks/cyber-attacks that could jeopardize or paralyze one's business, prevents prosecution and sanctions for non-compliance with the GDPR.​​​​​

Keep technologies up to date and regularly iterate the functionality of solutions 

The maintainability of software, from a functional and technical point of view, is a critical issue, especially for companies that do not publish software but have developed custom solutions. To remove this risk, it is important to establish a long-term methodological plan, integrating good user-centered design practices from the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) onwards and in all future iterations, so as not to blindly pile up developments from version to version.  The reflection around the roadmap aims to prevent known pitfalls in the software publishing world:

Other examples

Here are a few more areas to bear in mind when striving to build a responsible tech stack:

  • Information hierarchy and structuring in software interfaces to provide audiences with physical and digital disabilities with the appropriate information at the appropriate time (accessibility and inclusiveness: copywriting, keyboard navigation, tags for interface readers, font size, contrast ratio, etc.).
  • While designing hardware - taking into account scenarios of temporary, situational, or permanent handicap, especially in public or professional places.
  • Selection of a host based on that host's certifications and promises, as well as the sensitivity of the program data and the client's or users' market.
  • Performance improvement (calculation time, loading time, reduction of database calls, etc.)
  • Restrictions on the volume of data that can transit via the network.
  • Encryption or anonymization of sensitive data.
  • Simple and intuitive design for a well-defined target audience, coupled with documentation of features and pathways.
  • Processing and data collection documentation.
  • At the end of a project - cleaning up data, such as emails and test data sets, and releasing to development and pre-production environments.


Even if the examples cited above apply more specifically to the professions of Product-UX designers and development engineers, it is indeed an effort to be fully aware of all aspects of a project - from its inception to its end of life - this will make digital solutions responsible.

In order to evaluate them, new reference systems are appearing in the various digital professions and also more globally, such as the INR (previously The Green IT Club, founded in France in 2014) which has had its Swiss branch since 2020, and which provides an evaluation grid to measure the sustainability of a project.

It is obvious that digital agencies and software publishers must be the driving force behind a responsible digital approach at a time when the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report is raising concerns about the climate and society is becoming more concerned about the ethics of the services it consumes.

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