Mobile Engagement; Utility's Achilles Heel

Why can’t I split utility bill payments with my roommate? asked a friend who runs a consumer web business about a month ago. I had excuses but not much in terms of an actual response. His question got me thinking about what needs to happen for the utility industry to ramp up our engagement with the new type of consumer who, for all intents and purposes, does everything with their mobile phones.

Why aren’t we in the industry more embracing of mobile as a means of engaging the consumer?

I’ve been in the utility industry for 13+ years with some overlaps with the consumer web space. For the most part it’s been a constant game of keeping up with trends and changes on the consumer web side but less so on the utility side. But it’s ripe for change and there are some simple ways to do it. First some data…

What does the data say?

Pew Research released some data a few weeks ago on the state of mobile usage in the US and the data confirms what most of us know; mobile device usage has skyrocketed amongst all demographics in the US. Some critical data points

  • 64% of American adults own a smartphone (35% in 2011) and these consumers are now starting to use their phones for critical services with the report showing 57% have used their phone for online banking.
  • And in a special study period fully 97% of smartphone owners used text messaging at least once a day over the course of the study period.
  • Some 88% of smartphone owners used email on their phone at least once a day over the course of the study period, making email a more widely-used smartphone feature than social networking, watching video, or using maps and navigation, amongst others

Flurry (from Yahoo) also released some data last year suggesting that

  • Time spent on a mobile device by the average US consumer has risen to 2 hours and 42 minutes per day with ~96% of that time spent in mobile apps.

Most of these stats won’t surprise anyone who has a mobile phone but I’ll point out three things that highlight why our industry is lagging behind in terms of consumer engagement through mobile.

  1. Comed, Duke Energy and a few other progressive utilities are tapping into mobile engagement and communication through text. But there is some disconnect there as most consumers spend their time in apps.
  2. Most utilities thankfully have websites. Some even have mobile adaptive websites. The issue is, you guessed it, most consumers do not view websites on their phones. They go straight to apps.
  3. Where the utility has an app, and I’ve tested a few of them, the user experience is quite pathetic and poorly designed.

And if you’re asking ‘what is user experience design?’ that’s part of the problem…

Mobile Apps designed with the user in mind as the missing ingredient

Even though our industry doesn’t focus on user experience design (creating products or services with the consumers needs in mind), that consumers interact with the utility at all means they already have an experience with us. It just so happens to be interaction the consumer is not happy with, as evidenced by thelow scores on almost all consumer satisfaction rankings.

The high level of overall consumer mobile device engagement gives us the opportunity to refresh the commitment and improve these low satisfaction scores utilities perennially get. By focusing on mobile we’re just meeting the consumers where they are and providing services that meet the expectations they already have and satisfactorily get from other service providers they engage with.

How do we speed up utility engagement through mobile devices?

To do this we’ll have to start by incorporating human centered design (IDEO being the pioneers of this) into how we create products for said consumers. HCD is exactly what it sounds like; development of products and services with the consumer needs guiding product design and development. Almost every other industry (commerce, telecoms, healthcare etc.) is incorporating HCD into how they create engagement channels and products for the end user. Our industry needs to start to do the same. 

What does your 23 year old consumer who’s just gotten a job in New York, has a roommate and lives a ‘paperless life’ as a ‘mobile digital native’ want from her electricity, water and gas provider? Until we get insights into how these new consumers live their lives we won’t be able to create mobile experiences that serve their needs and seamlessly fit into their current high engagement with their mobile devices. Change we must and at a speed that matches the pace of mobile technology. We have no choice.

So if my friend asked me the same question ‘Why can’t I split utility bill payments with my roommate?’ my answer would be ‘very soon you will be able to, because the industry is now starting to get it’…