Hey, Another Electric Utility Launched an App!
First, I want to applaud our peers at Memphis Light Gas & Water for launching their first mobile app. As someone who’s actively involved at AEP building out our mobile strategy and determining the feasibility of adding rich features in a mobile web or app environment, I know that it’s a challenge on many fronts: determining the features customers want, deploying the development resources committed to building an app (whether outsourced or in-house), and crafting a user experience that is usable in the confines of a mobile phone’s small screen.
Unfortunately, the app falls short in some areas of usability and customer features, which I’ll discuss below. I offer my critique as constructive to our friends at MLGW, and not bashing or berating in any way.
Before I proceed, I must note that I am not an MLGW customer or employee, and therefore could not log in and access any of the account features. Some of my comments pertain to screen shots that I reviewed in the MLGW Blog, Bird on a Wire.
MLGW got it right on many fronts. We constantly hear from customers that they want usable outage maps, outage reporting, and outage status on their mobile phones. It’s for that reason that we launched phase one of our mobile site last November at www.aep.com/mobile. Its focus is primarily outage reporting and outage restoration efforts during major storms. We have not yet added maps (although that’s next), and we do not yet have the ability to provide individual outage status. So the fact that MLGW offers the trifecta of outage-related features (reporting, maps, personal status) is wonderful.
Where the app lags is in the mapping feature itself. The initial load is incredibly slow, and upon launch, I was rewarded with several minutes of this:
At least three times, I had to force quit the app because there was no way of selecting a different menu item while the map was loading. It would have been more useful if either the maps loaded faster or they loaded in the background, allowing me to explore other areas of the app. That was frustrating.
Once the map loads, you can see it’s using Google mapping with colored rectangle overlays that show approximate geographic areas of outages. The legend at the top makes it pretty clear what the colors represent. There’s no way that a bad guy can use the map to pinpoint individual outages, which is paramount from a safety perspective. If you tap on a colored rectangle, the map auto scrolls down, and a bubble opens with information about the customers affected. The [x] to close the bubble is too small, making it terribly difficult to close the bubble. They should build extra space around the [x], allowing for larger target acquisition.
When I tapped a red rectangle, I expected to see a lot more information about the outage than just the customers affected. Well, it turns out the information *is* there, but it’s in the status bar. And that’s a problem – because there is no visible change to the bar when you tap a rectangle. I honestly thought something was broken, until something made me try to grab that area and drag upward. Sure enough, there was a lot more information, but it was hidden. But because the only discernible visual difference before and after tapping a rectangle was the bubble of customers, I fear that the more useful outage information will remain invisible to people. Rather than opening the bubble, MLGW should auto-expand the outage details – including customers affected – and then provide a simple way of closing it to get back to the map.
The other strange thing is that even though I’m looking at outage details, the navigation at the bottom shows that I’m in the Home section. What’s weird is that I can tap Outage Details and get to the same map, and the nav shows I’m in “Outage Details.” Clearly, telling me I’m in Outage Details is way more relevant than Home. When I tap Home again, I get the same map, only now I’m in the Home section. Odd.
Let’s talk about Payment Locations. The screen is a list, starting with the MLGW offices and then sort of falling into a haphazard alphabetical order. Information architects and interface designers know that, yes, alphabetical is one valid way to organize information. Problem is, it’s best suited for A to Z indexes, not location-based services. Or what should be location-based services. I can’t figure out how a list of all the Circle Ks in Memphis really helps me pinpoint a payment location. If I’m about to leave my house to go pay you, please make it easy to find a location. When I open payment locations, the app should prompt me to use my location, and then show me the closest payment centers. If I’m planning to pay later in the day, when I’m not actually going to be near my current location, let me enter a zip code or address of where I’ll be, and show me the closest matches.
When I tap a Circle K location, it opens a screen that tells me literally nothing more than I saw in the full list. I tried tapping the address to open a map to get directions, but nothing happens. Also, does the Circle K charge any fees for paying my bill? And what are its hours? All in all, Payment Locations is mostly un-useful.
MLGW did a nice job with this section, which splits the screen between a map and phone numbers. I find this to be extremely helpful if I need a quick phone number for customer service or to report an emergency. When you tap a pinpoint on the map, you get more information about the MLGW office. Tap that, and you get fuller details, although the ability to generate directions would be nice.
News, Blog, and Tips
I’m rolling all of these into one, primarily because these are non-essential customer features. We pretty much never hear from customers asking us where our news releases are on our mobile site, or our energy conservation tips. That said, I understand that there are corporate realities that necessitate adding content like this. My advice, then, is if you’re going to add non-self-service functions, at least make them usable.
In the MLGW News section, the date takes up so much horizontal room that the headline itself is severely truncated. In the example below, you can see that two of the headlines look identical. I would format the date in a more “normal” way, like April 23, 2011, or 4/23/11, and then consider placing the headline on the next line. And since we’re in the confines of the MLGW app, do we really need each headline to start with “MLGW”? The other oddity is that when you tap the three-line snippet of news item, nothing at all happens. I tried several times. Still nothing. Then I clicked on the headline, and voila, I get the news. This design violates mobile best practices in several ways. The target acquisition is not only too small (should be at least 44 pixels high, if not more), but it provides no actual clue that it’s touchable. If it were, say, blue, that would be somewhat more of an indicator. Better yet would be to make the entire area hot, encasing each item within a thin border, maybe even adding a little rightward pointing arrow. But that’s not the end of the problems. When you eventually get a news story open, it’s literally pulling in the non-mobile-optimized full MLGW site into the context of the app:
The results are potentially disastrous, especially if someone tries using the in-page navigation, as I did by tapping “Back to headlines” and by randomly selecting a link in the left nav. So, not only is it pretty much unreadable without expansion, it’s a whole new experience within an experience. The good news is that customers don’t come to your mobile site looking for news, so the odds of someone getting tangled up in this instead of transacting the business they came there to do are pretty small. Still, it’s messy. If you’re going to provide news, make the experience mobile friendly, much as our colleagues at BCHydro are doing at http://m.bchydro.com.
MLGW’s “Tips” section, on the other hand, offers a more conventional mobile approach to selecting, as you can see:
But, when you select a tip, the title is still truncated, which is odd. The organization of the tips themselves seems to be random, and one of them repeated itself (“Use fans to move the air inside your…”).
The Blog is informative, but it takes you completely out of the app. I was curious about the storm restoration video, so I tapped it and expected it to load within the confines of the app. It did not, but rather, took me to the Bird on a Wire blog in Safari. And I’m afraid to report that the simpler, text-based updates, such as “Air-Conditioners Available for Seniors” is a dump of (too much) text without any paragraph breaks or other formatting. Very hard to read. In their updates, they provide phone numbers and links that are not touchable. Less useful.
To recap, news, tips, and blogs are non-essential, so if you choose to provide them, please make them usable and presentable.
Account and BillPay
Finally, let’s talk about the features within Account. Remember, I could not access these, so I’m going by an MLGW-provided screen cap here:
Getting my outage status: wonderful! I desperately want to know when my power will be back on. Making a payment arrangement: awesome! We know that many of our customers are facing rate increases, economic hardship, or other life situations that cause them to need more time to pay. Our customers have tried using our own mobile site to request an extension. It’s very useful to have this in the app. Providing an account balance: great! That’s a very useful feature to see how much I owe. So I owe $234.35, and it’s due today (for example). Let me just go ahead and pay that. Um, where do I pay? I can make a payment arrangement, but what if I want to just pay my bill? I assume that I could just tap on my balance, and I would enter into the payment routine.
Again, since I’m not a customer, I can’t actually verify for myself that you can or cannot pay your bill. The screen shots provided show no “Pay Bill” function. The comments from customers in the Apple App Store reviews for the MLGW app do imply that this function is missing:
As someone who’s worked the last 5 years trying to make our online bill payment experience more usable, I completely relate to the many challenges involved in just doing it usefully on a full site. Often, as is our case, there are multiple vendors to deal with, and we pawn you off to them to handle your payment. Problem is, customers are begging to be able to pay their bills on their mobile devices. If you’ve used any credit card apps, you know that they’ve made it pretty darned easy to pay your bill. And we’re becoming conditioned to that ease of use. I do not know what or who is behind the curtain of MLGW’s bill payment. But I do see that they are now offering free credit card payments online (again, something customers are continually clamoring for). I don’t know if this is their own homegrown system, or a vendor like Fiserv or an institutional banking partner. I am very encouraged by this though. Hopefully, no matter who it is, there is a mobile friendly payment experience on the near horizon. If I see that one day, MLGW is offering free mobile payments by credit card, I will be truly envious.
The MLGW app is aptly named “Version 000001.” It offers many of the features that customers want. It’s missing some that would make it even better. It has several kinks to work out in terms of providing a seamless mobile experience. Congratulations on the launch, and I look forward to Version 000002.