AEP Outage Alerts Have Launched to Customers!

When your power goes out, if you’re like most people, you want to know 1) Does your electric company know; 2) When will the power be restored; 3) What caused the outage? Today, a project I’ve worked on (and off) for years has finally launched — and will tell customers just that.

Back in 2007, customers first told me during user research that they would love to receive an alert by text or email when their power goes out. In 2009, we launched a small email-only pilot. Then during the bulk of 2014, we built the project in earnest — paving the way for email and text alerts for outages, billing and payments, or whatever other account-related functions we add down the road.

A sample power restoration email alert.

A sample power restoration email alert.

Today the first wave of alerts — Outage Alerts — has launched to AEP customers. Initially, customers can get alerts to one email address and one phone number. If their power goes out, they will receive an alert. Then, as the status changes, and AEP knows the estimated time of restoration (ETR), an additional alert will be sent. And when power is restored, customers will also receive an alert.

A sample updated restoration time text message.

A sample updated restoration time text message.

I hope people don’t have to experience an outage. But if they do, and if they are signed up for alerts, they will receive reassurance that AEP knows their power is out, plus get updates on restoration, and the cause of the outage (if known). It’s a great step toward improving customer experience, and I’m proud to be part of the project team!

The sign-up for for outage alerts.

The sign-up for for outage alerts.

If you’re an AEP customer, you can sign up for alerts at


Design vs. UX Viral Photo — I Object!

There’s a photo making the rounds in the User Experience world that’s gained thousands of favorites and retweets. You know the one — it shows nice, unused paved path next to a dirt path presumably worn into the grass by loads of people whose real goals were to get from point A to point B along a somewhat more desirable line. It originally came from Twitter user @benkimediyorum.

And while I agree that what we’re looking at is Something vs. Something Else, and I believe I get the essence of what the photo is saying, I do not agree that we’re looking at Design vs. User Experience.

Why? Because Design done properly reflects a well-planned user experience. The User Experience reflects a design created with the input of the users (in this case, the walkers), but also with the input of the business (perhaps this is a school?), the constraints of the budget, the environment, and so on. Design and UX go hand in hand, and I don’t believe you can pit them against each other.

If Design had been part of the project, it would have started out with some conversations. First, hypothetically, with the users.

A user researcher or two could have conducted some simple (and fun) ethnographic research. All that means is they park themselves under a tree and just observe the comings and goings of students. That would have been a great first step. From there, some basic user interviews could have been conducted. “Why are you walking from here to there?” “I see you’re coming straight from that parking lot. Where are you headed? Where did you come from?” Presumably, with how worn that dirt path is, there would have been a lot of pedestrian traffic to interview. Eventually, if you talk to enough people, you probably start seeing patterns, what times of day get heavy usage? are there athletes? students? carrying backpacks or not? gender? Probably more than enough information to decide not only where to create your path, but maybe even how wide to make it, or even which materials to use. (What if most of the people are on rollerblades because they play roller hockey in that empty lot from 6-8 PM? And you were planning on your path being cobblestone?)

Anyway, my point is that some easy-to-do user research would have uncovered a lot of actionable information.

Design’s role is also to understand the client’s goals, not just the end user goals. A roundtable discussion or 1-on-1 interviews with the business would have elucidated any constraints that the business had. Suppose the budget is finite and it’s not possible to pave two paths. What if the land adjacent to the proposed path is notoriously flood prone or is some kind of wildlife preserve. Now what?

Now what is that Design — that ongoing conversation between user and client — would have come up with the best possible outcome, given the constraints of the client and the goals of the user.

As a User Experience Design practitioner, I can tell you this: The best possible outcome is NOT always the ideal outcome for all parties. That’s reality. But Design — good Design — will always attempt to create the ideal User Experience. The two go hand-in-hand.

All that said, for the sake of this Design vs. UX photo, let’s assume that the school had sufficient budget to create a paved path (or two) anywhere between the two points and that the land was not some kind of preserve or swamp. No major constraints, and the project developers were eager to just go out a make a path.

The result? The photo you see. An expensive, non-Designed path alongside a worn dirt path representing what would have been a much better Designed path. A path that would have been created with much user input. A thoughtful, conversation-driven, researched, planned, studied, iterated, tested process that would have ultimately placed pavement where dirt now lies.

What I see in the photo is not Design vs. User Experience. If we’re to infer that the paved path is the undesirable one, it is actually the antithesis of Design. The dirt path is what should have been the design had Design and UX been involved. Using my mad Photoshop skills, I have recaptioned the photo: Development Without Design and Unfulfilled User Goals. The paved path is what happens when a project plows ahead without UX and Design. The dirt path represents unmet, undiscovered user goals and desires — the beginnings of a design unrealized.


What’s scary is how often I see this in the corporate world of web sites and applications. Where a business unit says, “We need a web site that does blah.” And developers plow ahead, paving a web site that accomplishes their own aims, and leaving the poor users to trudge through the dirt to accomplish their goals.


Security Questions Get Personal!

We’re all familiar with the traditional “mother’s maiden name” online account security question — one of the first I remember when security questions began to proliferate. To seemingly provide more secure, unguessable options, companies have added others, like “make and model of first car,” “street you lived on in 3rd grade,” and more questions whose answers don’t ever change. Of course, we also see examples of bad questions that DO change over time. These are mainly “favorites” types of questions: “favorite actor,” “favorite song,” “favorite movie,” “favorite teacher.” If you’re like me, my favorites change over time, rendering these types of questions useless. FYI, if you’ve ever had to reset your Apple ID password, you’ve noticed that Apple is among the biggest culprits of “favorites” questions.

Apple Security Questions

Apple security questions include many “favorites,” which change over time.

Favorites aren’t the only questions whose answers can change. How about “youngest child’s middle name?” Well, what if I have more children? Am I going to remember that fact a couple years down the line when I have forgotten my password, but increased my family count? Heck, questions about where you met your spouse can have ephemeral answers if you’re the divorcing type. Even questions like “nickname as a child” become difficult to answer. I had at least 4 nicknames that family and friends called me by. Which one do I choose? And what is the likelihood that 6 months later, I’ll remember the right nickname. My oldest cousin’s name? Well, it works for now, but what happens if he or she dies? (I actually refuse to enter questions like this, out of some strange superstition I feel…but that’s a whole separate issue.)

Not only do fungible answers confound the process, but arbitrary syntax rules as well. What if the first concert I attended was “U2,” but the site demands at least 3 characters in the field? If the first concert was Bruce Springsteen, do I include the space between the names? Does upper or lower case matter? If next year, while recovering my password, I type “bruce springsteen” when the site was expecting “Bruce Springsteen,” will it give me an error? What if I spell it “Springstein”? After multiple errors, I may start to doubt my own memory of whether that was my first concert — and go down the “Barry Manilow” path. Hypothetically speaking. Of course.

Usability problems of security questions aside, every now and then, I come across some gems that are worth capturing. These more, um, personal questions are both usable — for their answers can never change — and amusing. Seeing “What is the first name of the boy or girl that you first kissed?” from an online bank was a shocker for its uniqueness — and its being from a bank, of all places. (OK, admittedly, I spent a few seconds pondering if the girl who kissed me in first grade counted, or if the site was really after my first, shall we say, real kiss.)

Kissing Questions

Security questions get personal, with kissing questions!

This got me wondering — in companies’ efforts to come up with ever-increasing unguessable security questions — how much more personal might these questions start to get? Like, substitute “kissed” with, you know, other activities. Or maybe secret moles or other bodily anomalies that only you know the answer to? Or “How old were you when you lost your ________?” You fill in the blank. (I was thinking “first tooth.” Get your mind out of the gutter.) Regardless, I’m sure I’d glance back over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching as I typed the answers. And I’d probably never forget the answers or enter them wrong. Unless, of course, your site expects me to spell out “forty” instead of “40.”

If you see any clever security questions in your web travels, please pass them along.