Electricity Shock

November 28, 2016

I have been had! I have just been stung for a 52% increase in my business electricity bill and I missed it! After getting over the annoyance at both the electricity company and myself, the lessons to be learnt are about how we all process information whether on paper or screen.

I thought I was aware of the tricks the electricity companies play. Every year when the contract comes up for renewal I get my spreadsheet out and compare the prices from my existing supplier and range of others. To get the best deal I am used to switching suppliers each year so I was pleasantly surprised when I got the contract renewal letter this year and the rates did not appear to have changed and my comparisons showed they were still the best deal. So I sat back, did nothing and let the contract roll over. What a fool! Why didn’t the alarm bells go off? Really – the prices had not changed!?

Some months later something prompted me to look at the bill which seemed high. The rates I was being changed were not the ones I was expecting. Feeling puzzled I dug out the renewal letter, reread it and realised I had mistaken that what I thought were the new rates were in fact the old ones. So my fault – yes? Well up to a point. The letter is a page and a half of densely written text. There are no heading or bullets. The details about the existing rate and termination are on one page, and the details of the new rates are over the page with billing information and a load of stuff I wasn’t interested in. Both sets of rates are buried within the middle of a paragraph. Also it is not easy to make the comparison. While they supply all the information you need (the new and old charge per day, rate per kWh and even your annual kWh consumption) you have do your own sums. Just to illustrate the complexity of this to get the percentage rate increase the formula is:

(Old annual charge x 365 + Old consumption x rate/kWh)-(New annual charge x 365 + New consumption x rate/kWh) / (Old annual charge x 365 + Old consumption x rate/kWh)!

To get at the information I wanted – the current rate and the new rate – I should have quietly sat down and read the letter very carefully from beginning to end but we don’t do this, we scan things, trying to pick out the information we want from a plethora of information we don’t want.

So what are the lessons from a UX perspective?

I was initially subject to ‘Confirmation bias’, a well-documented cognitive bias which is the tendency to search for information that confirms one’s preconceptions – I wanted the new rates, I saw some rates, I thought they were the new ones. Beware your own cognitive biases!

The information was not written with users in mind. Nobody sat down and said what do users want to know, what is most important to them. If you want something to be usable you need to understand users and their goals

The information was presented in a way that was hard to scan – If you care about users being able to understand something don’t write in great blocks of text, use headings, bullets, short sentences and paragraphs, and front load the important information.

They didn’t tell me what I needed to know – how much the bill would change. Don’t force users to do all the work – make it easy for them.

If I was feeling kind I would say they were just incompetent and don’t know how to present information in a way that is most helpful to users. But I am not feeling kind and believe it was a deliberate attempt to present the information in a confusing and complicated, to make it hard for users off to understand, so they would do nothing and let the contract just roll over – thereby netting them a cool 52% increase in the rates they receive. I guess it is not great revelation that electricity companies really don’t care about the customer experience.