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Tips for Improving Greenbox’s Energy Portal

| 12.9.2009

A recent article praised Greenbox Technology for “deliver[ing] understanding to utility customers.” While Greenbox does provide useful functionality that differentiates it from its competitors, key improvements to its interaction design would go a long way to provide a better overall user experience.


The Good

To be fair, Greenbox does deserve a gold star for displaying energy data specifically in dollars ($).  As I mentioned in an earlier post, consumers don’t understand energy units, such as kWh, and are motivated to change their behavior by saving money.


The Not So Good

But, what about the rest of the Greenbox design?   Greenbox gets caught up in the same usability pitfalls I’ve seen in other consumer energy portals as well –too much information and not enough direct reference to the things that matter most to users.  Here are my top three suggestions to help Greenbox, or any consumer energy portal, deliver an excellent user experience:

1) Simplify, simplify, simplify!

My foremost suggestion is simplicity. At first glance, the Greenbox interface looks very busy. There are many controls and buttons, and it tries to accomplish too much on a single page. Do users really need to be able to adjust their thermostat controls right on the main landing page, and also view their overview and data details at the same time? Instead, the home page could show only the most important information at first glance, and use color to further highlight and differentiate content on the page. The user can always drill-in to inside pages to access the less urgent information or access info on mouseover.

2) Engage users immediately with compelling content and proactive recommendations

My first response to the Greenbox dashboard is, “So what?”  I’m missing context to understand the significance of my data. For example, is my overall usage good or bad? Am I using more or less energy than I did last month? Am I on track so far this month? Also, the portal doesn’t offer any suggestions for changing my behavior so it’s unclear what my next step should be.

To engage its users, Greenbox should focus on delivering insightful content that immediately provides context and motivation. Delight users by anticipating their questions and displaying answers at-a-glance. Provide simple charts and visuals on the dashboard to compare energy usage to different time periods and to others in the community so that people understand why this information matters.

3) Adhere to basic design principles

In addition to overall experience enhancements, here are some basic user interface guidelines to help GreenBox or any other site be more usable:

  • Use clear titles Is the bar chart below showing data for all energy resource usage, just the electricity usage, or only heating and cooling (because that’s what is selected in green)? It’s hard to know for sure without a clear title for the chart.


  • Use visual cues to help users appropriately group related itemsThe content relationships on GreenBox are a little hard to parse.  For example, in the screenshot below, the “Heating/Cooling” button selected on the left side of the dashboard, actually updates the content shown on the right side, which is not immediately obvious.


Instead, GreenBox could make these two items more visually related to connect them. For example, put the same  green border around the box on the right and give both elements the same background color (see update below). Then, I would be much more likely to quickly understand their relationship.

Updated design with green box:similarity_after
  • Visually identify hyperlinks & interactive featuresTo help users understand what’s clickable, it’s important to differentiate hyperlinks and interactive features from other static elements on the page. For example, on the GreenBox site buttons and links currently use the same dark text color as other static elements, which makes them difficult to identify.


A Minimal Redesign Idea

If we take the recommendations above and do a very minimal redesign of Greenbox limiting ourselves to only minor changes to content and layout, we already begin to see large improvements in terms of usability.


For example, in this minimal redesign, the relationships between content is clearer due to stronger visual cues and use of titles, the interactive elements more readily “pop” from the page, and inclusion of arrow icons begin to tell an interesting story about the user’s energy consumption.

But we’re not done yet…

Of course, it would take GreenBox more than just a simple redesign with no change in functionality to address all of our recommendations.  As a next step, I think Greenbox would benefit to take a more critical look at its overall structure and content to ensure they lend themselves to a good user experience – in particular thinking about the best items to put on the home page and trying to answer the question “So what?”

Will we see a new and improved Greenbox site in the near future?  We hope so.  In the meantime, let’s learn both from the things that Greenbox does well and from the areas that Greenbox falls short so that we can continue to focus our energy on creating intuitive, meaningful, and persuasive user experiences.


Related post: Watts all the buzz about smart grid energy?

Which Metrics Equal Happy Users?

| 12.3.2009

One of the greatest tools available to me as an interaction designer is the ability to see real metrics. I’m guessing that’s surprising to some people. After all, many people still think that design all happens before a product ever gets into the hands of users, so how could I possibly benefit from finding out what users are actually doing with my products?

Well, for one thing, I believe that design should continue for as long as a product is being used by or sold to customers. It’s an iterative process, and there’s nothing that gives me quicker, more accurate insight into how a new product version or feature is performing than looking at user metrics.

But there’s something that I, as a user advocate, care about quite a lot that is really very hard to measure accurately. I care about User Happiness. Now, I don’t necessarily care about it for some vague, good karma reason. I care because I think that happy users are retained users and, often, paying users. I believe that happy users tell their friends about my product and reduce my acquisition costs. I truly believe that happy users can earn money for my product.

So, how can I tell whether my users are happy? You know, without talking to every single one of them?

Although I think that happy users can equal more registrations, more revenue, and more retention, I don’t actually believe that this implies the opposite. In other words, there are all sorts of things I can do to retain customers or get more money out of them that don’t actually make them happy. Here are a few of the important business metrics you might be tempted to use as shorthand for customer happiness – but it’s not always the case:


An increase in retention numbers seems like a good indication that your customers are happy. After all, happier customers stay longer, right?

But, do you mean retention or forced retention? For example, I can artificially increase my retention numbers by locking new users into a long contract, and that’s going to keep them with me for awhile. Once that contract’s up, they are free to move wherever they like, and then I need to acquire a customer to replace them. And, if my contract is longer than my competitors’, it can scare off new users.

Also, the retention metric is easy to affect with switching barriers, which may increase the number of months I have a customer while making them less happy. Of course, if those switching barriers are removed for any reason – for example, cell phone number portability – I can lose my hold over long time customers.

While retention can be an indicator of happy customers, increasing retention by any means necessary doesn’t necessarily make your customers happier.


Revenue’s another metric that seems like it would point to happy customers. Increased revenue means people are spending more, which means they like your service!

There are all sorts of ways I can increase my revenue without making my customers happier. For example, I can rope them into paying for things they didn’t ask for or use deceptive strategies to get them to sign up for expensive subscriptions. This can work in the short term, but it’s likely to make some customers very unhappy, and maybe make them ex-customers in the long run.

Revenue is also tricky to judge for free or ad-supported products. Again, you can boost ad revenue on a site simply by piling more ads onto a page, but that doesn’t necessarily enhance your users’ experience or happiness.

While increased revenue may indicate that people are spending more because they find your product more appealing, it can also be caused by sacrificing long term revenue for short term gains.

NPS – Net Promoter Score

The net promoter score is a measure of how many of your users would recommend your product to a friend. It’s actually a pretty good measure of customer happiness, but the problem is that it can be tricky to gauge accurately. It generally needs to be obtained through surveys and customer contact rather than simple analytics, so it suffers from relying on self-reported data and small sample sizes. Also, it tends to be skewed in favor of the type of people who answer surveys and polls, which may or may not be representative of your customer base.

While NPS may be the best indicator of customer happiness, it can be difficult to collect accurately. Unless your sample size is quite large, the variability from week to week can make it tough to see smaller changes that may warn of a coming trend.

Conversion to Paying

For products using the freemium or browsing model, this can be a useful metric, since it lets you know that people like your free offering enough to pay for it. However, it can take awhile to collect the data after you make a change to your product because you have to wait for enough new users to convert to payers.

Also, it doesn’t work well on ad-supported products or products that require payment upfront.

Most importantly, it doesn’t let you know how happy your paying customers are, since they’ve already converted.

Conversion to Paying can be useful, but it is limited to freemium or browsing models, and it tends to skew toward measuring the free part of the product rather than the paid product.


Engagement is an interesting metric to study, since it tells me how soon and often users are electing to come back to interact with my product and how long they’re spending. This can definitely be one of the indicators of customer happiness for ecommerce, social networking, or gaming products that want to maximize the amount of time spent by each user. However, increasing engagement for a utility product like processing payroll or managing personal information might actually be an indicator that users are being forced to do more work than they’d like.

Also, engagement is one of the easiest metrics to manipulate in the short run. One time efforts, like marketing campaigns, special offers, or prize giveaways can temporarily increase engagement, but unless they’re sustainable and cost effective, they’re not going to contribute to the long term happiness of your customers.

For example, one company I worked with tried inflating their engagement numbers by offering prizes for coming back repeatedly for the first few days. While this did get people to return after their first visit, it didn’t actually have any effect on long term user happiness or adoption rates.

Engagement can be one factor in determining customer happiness, but this may not apply if you don’t have an entertainment or shopping product. Also, make sure your engagement numbers are being driven by actual customer enjoyment of your product and not by artificial tricks.


While registration can be the fastest metric to see changes in, it’s basically worthless for figuring out how happy your users are, since they’re not interacting with the product until after they’ve registered. The obvious exception is products with delayed (i.e. lazy) registration, in which case it can act like a lower barrier-to-entry version of Conversion to Paying. When you allow users to use your product for awhile before committing, an increase in registration can mean that users are finding your product compelling enough to take the next step and register.

Registration is only an indicator of happy customers when it’s lazy, and even then it’s only a piece of the puzzle, albeit an important one.

Customer Service Contacts

You’d think that decreasing the number of calls and emails to your customer service team would give you a pretty good idea of how happy your customers are. Unfortunately, this one can be manipulated aggressively by nasty tactics like making it harder to get to a representative or find a phone number. A sudden decrease in the number of support calls might mean that people are having far fewer problems. Or, it might mean that people have given up trying to contact you and gone somewhere else.

Decreased Customer Service Contacts may be caused by happier customers, but that’s not always the case.

So which is it?

While all of these metrics can be extremely important to your business, no single one can tell you if you are making your customers happy. However, looking at trends in all of them can certainly help you determine whether a recent change to your product has made your customers happier.

For example, imagine that you introduce a new element to your social networking site that reminds users of their friends’ birthdays and then helps them choose and buy the perfect gifts. Before you release the feature, you decide that it is likely to positively affect:

  • Engagement – every time you send a reminder of a birthday, it gives the user a reason to come back to the product and reengage.
  • Revenue – assuming you are taking a cut of the gift revenue, you should see an increase when people find and buy presents.
  • Conversion to Paying – you’re giving your users a new reason to spend money.
  • (Lazy) Registration – if you only allow registered users to take advantage of the new feature, this can give people a reason to register.
  • Retention – you’re giving users a reason to stay with you and keep coming back year after year, since people keep having birthdays.

Once the feature is released, you look at those numbers and see a statistically significant positive movement in all or most of those metrics. As long as the numbers aren’t being inflated by tricks or unsustainable methods (for example, you’re selling the gifts at a huge loss, or you’re giving people extra birthdays), you can assume that your customers are being made happy by your new feature and that the feature will have a positive impact on your business.

Of course, while you’re looking at all of your numbers and metrics and analysis, some good old fashioned customer outreach, where you actually get out and talk directly with users, can also do wonders for your understanding of WHY they’re feeling the way they’re feeling. But that’s another post.

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For more information on the user experience, check out: