Paperless billing – out of sight, out of mind

I’m Sophy, a content designer at CoopDigital. My team builds digital products that test our core proposition, that Co-op is an organisation that people can trust with their personal data. My job, in collaboration with design, development and user research, is to come up with the words that appear in those products. We’re currently working on Paperfree, a mobile app that helps people get on top of their paperwork. In the last couple of weeks we’ve uncovered a new, unmet, user need.

Most of the companies that sell us necessities like water, gas and television offer paperless billing in some form or another. These companies email us from time to time, urging us to log on and take a look at our latest bill. But how many of us actually do this?

It’s easy to lose track; paying by standing order and opting for paperless billing means that bills just get paid, out of sight and out of mind. Which can be good – you’re no longer knee-deep in paper. But you’re out of touch with your spending and the information you need is buried behind many different login screens. Oh, and companies tend to delete bills that are more than a year old.

As part of our user research on Paperfree, we spoke to people who are very good at being paperless. By doing things like regularly downloading utility bills from their online accounts, they are in control – not just of their documents, such as bills and statements, but also of the information in those documents. They can track their spending over a longer periods of time and make better decisions about their finances.

It’s worthwhile, but hard work. And arguably not much of an improvement on getting paper copies of bills in the post.

We immediately recognised a problem, and an opportunity to fix it. Our group of people with advanced paperless skills go to a lot of effort to understand their long-term spending behaviour. Other people will log on and take a look at their bills when prompted. But they are looking at this information in isolation, without the bigger picture of their spending across different suppliers and sectors. And a lot of us simply don’t bother at all.

So we’ve started trying to solve this problem. We’re still working to our core purpose around trust and personal data, but with a new focus.

This is how it we think it could work: you enter the login details for your (for example) water supplier billing website within the app. The app then logs in to your account for you and downloads all your old bills. We also want it to automatically go and get any new bills as they come in. Repeat this process for all your other suppliers, and you have something that takes care of downloading your bills for you so that you can see them all in one place. You’re more likely to engage with your bills. You don’t have to keep logging in to lots of different accounts. You decide when you want to delete your old bills, rather than having this decision made for you.

Image of the Paperless Team

In the last few days we’ve built a rough prototype that we can test on real people.  As a team we’re used to not getting attached to things – working in the pioneering end of product development at Co-op, we know that this idea may not see the light of day – and that’s OK. We work quickly and cheaply, so if a concept doesn’t take hold, we can move onto solving the next problem without tears.

For now, however, we’re very excited by this new focus. It complements the work we’ve done on Paperfree so far, and supports our core purpose (proving that Co-op can be trusted with personal data). It’s also really easy to explain – a good indicator of it being useful. We’ve set ourselves the goal of releasing a simple version in the next few weeks. In the meantime, we’d like to hear about your experiences of paperless billing sites – share your thoughts in the comments.

Sophy Colbert

10 thoughts on “Paperless billing – out of sight, out of mind

  1. Ruth Barrow August 3, 2016 / 3:50 pm

    I like this idea but the security would have to be very good indeed. Giving all your user ids and passwords for a range of suppliers would leave you open to identity theft.


    • Tom Taylor August 3, 2016 / 4:17 pm

      Absolutely! We’re taking that responsibility very seriously, and we’ll talk a bit more about that in future posts.


    • gailalyon August 3, 2016 / 4:50 pm

      Yes – it’s a good point Ruth – we’re designing it to make sure that we don’t store anything or have access to it – it’s all on the device.


  2. barbara holligan August 3, 2016 / 4:35 pm

    I would be very interested in this, especially as for tax purposes everything has to be kept for 6 years and as you say, banks and utilities tend to cleanse after one year and then charge a hefty fee if you need access of anything older.
    You would need users to be able to feed in the exact info they need to be recorded – because I don’t really want to store the full list of all my phone calls for instance, just the final bill and component totals – whereas for another bill eg electricity I might want more intricate details of which month I spend most etc so I can monitor usage changes.

    Graphs are the best thing for me ! I like visuals more than numbers.

    On the down side I am very wary of installing more apps on my phone as they eat up storage space and i use a basic smart phone and intend to continue that way.. So hope you will make this Windows 10 friendly..


    • Sophy Colbert August 3, 2016 / 8:04 pm

      Hi Barbara, this is useful, thank you. In terms of what info would be recorded – in everything that we do – not just this bit of work – we always start very small and work up from there, based on user needs. We’re mindful of storage issues too – this is something we hear a lot! Watch this space – we’ll write more about what we discover as we go.


  3. Rob Marchant August 4, 2016 / 5:44 am

    Hi. I can see an aggregator service being very useful for members, especially if it was provided free, it would enhance the membership value proposition. Another good reason to be in the Co-op ‘club’.
    Taking it a step further though, the real value comes though when you provide comparative analysis and a way of improving things for members.



    • Sophy Colbert August 4, 2016 / 8:34 am

      Hi Rob, thanks for this – we’re starting very small and simple for now, but this is a good point and definitely something to consider. We’ll keep talking about our work as it progresses.


      • BARBARA August 29, 2016 / 12:29 pm

        Sophy, what is all the junk that keeps appearing on these blogs? How are they getting hijacked ?


  4. Ross August 4, 2016 / 8:46 am

    Requiring people to provide their login details is not an ideal solution. Passwords are the sort of thing that should never be stored in plaintext.

    Scraping the utility providers’ websites to retrieve bills is also an unreliable, high-effort process. I can understand why you would do this for a proof of concept, but in the long run you will absolutely need proper integration with the utility providers themselves. With literally dozens of electricity and gas providers (most of whose websites barely work), just maintaining the bill scraping and parsing will be incredibly complex.

    Perhaps you should define a standard API for billing information, and encourage providers to implement it. Eventually, you can aim for ‘Paperfree compatible’ to be something that consumers look for when signing up to something. Then Paperfree users can just connect their utility accounts with OAuth or an API key.

    (Ideally, this API would be open and documented)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matt August 5, 2016 / 1:26 pm

      I agree strongly with Ross on the scalability and maintainability issues. Security is an issue but not unprecedented with sites like lovemoney taking a similar approach. I’m not sure how well it was realised but I’d look into midata and whether or not that initiative might be progressed to the utilities companies


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