For a few years now, I’ve been locked in something of a cold war with my cell-phone company AT&T. It’s a state of affairs I’m sure many of you will find familiar. They subject me to all the sanctions they’re able to as a cellular superpower: crappy service, never-ending contracts, invented charges. And I fight back the only way I know how, by steadfastly holding on to my unlimited data account instead of letting them shove me onto whatever rationed megabyte program they’ve currently got instituted. But the most maddening thing about the whole struggle is the inscrutable document they send me once a month, the only official word I receive from the monolithic foe: my cell-phone bill. Has there ever been a clearer declaration of war?
To say that phone bills are hard to follow is an understatement. You’d probably have better luck deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Three, a European cell company, realized that these needlessly incomprehensible bills were making adversaries out of good customers, so they enlisted the design consultants at Fjord to help them do something about it. Something radical. They created a billing tool that’s actually a pleasure to use.
The peace offering takes the form of a smartphone app called "My 3," currently available to the company’s subscribers in Sweden. Basically, it gives users their bills (and then some) in a series of straightforward infographics. Customers can view breakdowns of their charges, keep track of roaming fees and data allowances, see who they call and text most frequently, and more—whenever they want, right on their smartphones. It’s like a colorful control center for everything related to your cellular subscription.
Daniel Freeman, Fjord’s service design director, told me that the Three was set on making something that would "wow" its customers. But as he became more familiar with how the company operated, he realized it wasn’t going to be easy. "When you peek beneath the hood of a telecom operator," Freeman told me, "you begin to understand the complexity of how mobile subscriptions work. There are multiple layers of allowance for voice, data and messaging, roaming usages, family allowances, and customized add-ons—this meant over 200 different active subscription models that needed to be quantified and visually modeled in a way that makes sense to consumers." At the risk of making excuses for the cell companies of the world—point taken. These are sprawling businesses that have to keep track of an immense amount of customer data.
But it’s a lot for customers to keep track of, too. If Three’s new app really has to deal with over 200 different plans, that means, at some point, subscribers were faced with that same dizzying variety of options themselves. And as mobile devices continue to evolve from phones to fully functioning pocket computers, commonsense metrics like minutes and messages aren’t the only things subscribers will have to stay on top of. Smartphone users are arriving at a strange new frontier en masse—that of mobile data—and carriers should feel a responsibility to help their customers make sense of it. Freeman agrees: "As people use more and more data services, this is becoming an even greater issue. How do you help customers understand what a gigabyte of data actually means? What is the value of time spent on Facebook versus YouTube?"
But for networks like Three, fostering a more transparent relationship with customers is just smart business, even if it does take some significant resources to establish. With things like the My 3 app, subscribers will see that the carrier’s making an effort to demystify mobile data, and that will undoubtedly breed goodwill—and customer loyalty. But the app also stands to help the company’s bottom line in a slightly less obvious way: When subscribers understand the charges they’re paying for, custom service calls—and the costs associated with them—go down.
Freeman says the next step they’re taking toward a more enlightened mobile billing system is translating some of the infographics used in the app for the company’s paper billing. I applaud such efforts. Meanwhile, I’ll be here in this turret protecting my unlimited data plan.
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]