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