Usability is key to e-success

Steven M. Brown, Associate Editor

The Public Utility Commission (PUC) of Texas recently completed a very informal study in which two PUC staff members served as “mystery shoppers” and, using only the Internet and a Texas Electric Choice newspaper insert, were asked to find answers to 13 questions related to shopping for a retail electric provider (REP). The mystery shoppers assessed six REPs. The comments returned were generally not positive.

“Very confusing; lots of flipping back and forth,” the mystery shoppers commented on one REP’s site.

“Could only find answer to one question,” was the assessment of another REP site.

“Couldn’t locate REP site from main corporate site,” was perhaps the most egregious of the REP Web site errors reported by the PUC mystery shoppers.

Only one of the REPs, First Choice Power, received high overall marks for the accessibility of information on its Web site. As for the low marks received by the other five REPs, all were related to an inability of the mystery shopper to find certain information.

And the problem isn’t peculiar to Texas REPs. Energy is an energy industry-focused e-business advisory firm that periodically rates utility Web sites. According to Bill Crosby, Energy’s senior vice president of operations, utility Web sites are in general, “Pretty abysmal.”

Crosby said that most energy and utility Web sites serve mostly as glorified brochures for the company and offer little usable information or functionality. When valuable information or functionality is provided, it’s often difficult to find-as was the case with the Texas REP sites.

“Some utilities don’t seem to be putting an emphasis on navigability,” Crosby said. “We have a rule in Web design called ‘five clicks.’ Nothing should be more than five clicks away from the front page. They (utilities) rarely abide by that.”

Francesco Cara, chief HCI (human-computer interaction) officer for e-business consultants IconMedialab, echoed Crosby’s statements and said that utility Web site performance is often poor. The lack of performance, Cara said, is usually attributable to a lack of focus on customers’ needs.

“Customers don’t perceive value, and when they do, they have trouble putting the value to use,” Cara said. “You really need to look at how your customers interact with technology and how they use it in their everyday lives to identify where your online offering can be improved.”

Crosby said that a partial solution to the poor performance of utility Web sites could be as simple as conducting a customer survey. “Very few companies have taken the time to find out what their customers really want when they visit a Web site,” he said. “Instead, they’re giving them what they think their customers want. There are so very few in the energy and utilities market that I’ve seen actually do a customer survey.”

If the informal review of Texas REP Web sites is any indication, the need for those customer surveys may have reached critical status.

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