The SAP Multichannel Foundation (MCF) for Utilities has been already highly successful and we are seeing a rapid adoption.  With the recent release of a sample native mobile app for MCF a utility can offer 3 different ‘apps’ customers can use: a classic web page, a mobile web app and a mobile app. The question is now, what is really the difference and what should the utility offer?

Let’s explore this a bit, the pros and cons and the technical differences and where the mobile platform comes into play.

Classic web page:

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I do not know of a utility that does not have a classic customer portal, in most cases embedded into the corporate portal. The traditional web page has a lot of content, including pictures, small print text or downloadable forms. Typically the pages scroll and they work best on a desktop or laptop using a mouse and keyboard. A typical use case would be: You are at home in front of you computer with a big screen and want to research energy efficiency measures for your house. You browse the web, including the local utility pages.

If you were on a smaller device like a phone or tablet, the screen would be harder to read, the fonts are small and often the page would cut off to the right. Navigation would be tricky trying to find spots to tap and some elements might not display properly or not even run, for example some videos or animations. Overall the classic web page experience would be much worse on a mobile device, it is also much slower.

However, there is a clear trend to simplified web pages overall that run better on mobile devices, just have a look at sap.com and try to remember how it looked about a year ago.

Mobile web page:

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If you visit a web page on a mobile device, sometimes you notice that you get a simplified version. Browsers can sense the operating system and redirect your request to a web page optimized for mobile. A mobile web page has less content, typically no scrolling and also larger icons or buttons for navigation. A typical use case would be: You did home improvements and now you want to quickly check your recent energy consumption and bills. But you do not want to get up from the couch and fire up the laptop, instead you use your tablet or phone.

There are several ways to build improved web site for mobile. SAP started the line of Fiori apps about 2 years ago, we call them responsive apps because they respond and adjust to the form factor and input method of the device. The screens resize dynamically and for example swiping works to navigate or to delete or approve items.

And this is where some of the confusion starts. Is a mobile web page a real mobile app? Yes and no. It is a mobile app because it was built to run on mobile devices. It is not a mobile app because you do not install anything, instead it just runs in a browser, even if you do not see it. This is a key difference, you do not get this app through a mobile store, there is no downloading and that’s why some people don’t want to call it mobile app. In most cases, you ‘get’ this app via a link, for example the utility sends you a welcome e-mail. You can create an icon on your home screen for quick access and then it looks like an app.

Technically it is a web page, it will need to load the entire page with all text and pictures which takes time and bandwidth and it has very limited buffering and offline capabilities and that means for example the app will even have difficulties to remember who you are.

Should a utility offer this kind of app? Definitely yes, at least if the standard portal has a classic design, this is the best way to quickly and simply connect to the utility on a mobile device. The best example here is the outage. You are at home, the Wifi is down because the router lost power, but data service on the phone still works, however much slower. If you want to check the outage status, you would search for the utility page and get a link.

In comparison, would you want to use the regular web page on the mobile device? No, because it loads very slow with all the pictures and the navigation is difficult. Would you want to download or update an app from an app store at this time? No, this might take long. The mobile web page is ideal for the occasional use like this.

Mobile app

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So in contrast, what is the difference to a mobile app from a store, like iTunes and Google Play? First of all, a mobile apps is always downloaded and installed with a certain version for a specific operating system version, that makes it a native mobile app. The user experience is superior, the app is optimized for a specific device, it is quicker than any (mobile) web page because for example icons, pictures, text etc. are locally stored on the device, the rendering is not in a browser. Device features like a camera, location service can also be easily used by the app. Compare the use case above. If you had an outage and used a native mobile app to check the outage status, this would be even quicker because the app needs to load only a little bit of outage information. The app can also remember you, handle preferences and locally store data. The other advantage is that notifications can be received. For example, you report an outage and there is an update on the restoration time, this can be pushed to the mobile device as an alert to the notification framework. This is only possible with a mobile app, not with a classic web page or mobile web page.

For the end user, the mobile app is the best choice in terms of usability and user experience. The price to pay is that the app needs to be installed and updated.

The utility company also pays an additional price because the app development and deployment has to happen for each mobile platform like iOS, Android, Windows Phone.

What type of web and mobile apps should the utility company offer for customer self service?

Most utilities recognize that the actual usage of their customer portal is already partially from a mobile device, typically more than 25%. This means that the pages should be friendly to mobile consumption anyway, at least on the first and second level.

The mobile experience can be improved by either simplifying the portal or a separate a mobile web app.

And to answer the initial question, an investment in a native mobile app makes sense if:

  • You want to offer the best user experience
  • You have frequent app users, for example customers monitoring their energy consumption or paying their bills on an app every month
  • You want to push information to customers via channels other than e-mail and text, for example high bill alerts, offers or outage information
  • You have means to develop and deploy mobile apps (The SAP Mobile Platform can help you, we have included the SMP consumer license in MCF).

Interested to learn more?

During the upcoming SAP for Utilities conference in Huntington Beach, California, I will run the workshop “How Mobility with SAP Can Transform Your Business” on Wednesday, September 16th from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m..

Please see the abstract below and sign up as long as space is available:

How Mobility with SAP can transform your business

Learn how mobility can provide value and transform business processes. Explore mobile scenarios for your employees as well as your customers and your partners. Hear about important steps when developing a mobile strategy. See the current mobile solutions in detail, including work management, field service, employee productivity and customer self-service. Understand mobile platforms, tools, and mobile security.

Key Takeaways:

  1. An overview of all important use cases for utilities and a strategy discussion
  2. Solution demonstrations of key mobile solutions for maintenance and field service, employee productivity, and customers
  3. The latest information and an update on mobile road maps
  4. Discussions about mobile architecture and the SAP Mobile Platform

Have a look at the agenda.

Cheers,

Robert

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Please follow us on @SAPIndustries #SAP4utl and SAP for Utilities LinkedIn group to get more information regarding the conference.

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