EDF Energy is one of the UK’s largest energy companies and it's the largest producer of low-carbon electricity. It produces around one-fifth of the nation's electricity from its nuclear power stations, wind farms, coal and gas power stations.
Bhavesh Limani is a project manager at Blue Lab, EDF Energy’s innovation accelerator near Brighton in the UK. Launched in 2015, Blue Lab monitors emerging technologies that help shape EDF Energy’s customer experience. One of its primary focus areas is the connected home, including how customers can manage their energy accounts and energy consumption.
When Amazon Echo launched in the United States, it grabbed Blue Lab’s attention. In collaboration with R&D, the Blue Lab team obtained two Echo units in late 2015. It then began to explore linking voice technology to energy account functionality. Blue Lab wanted to be ready whenever Amazon released Echo and Alexa in the UK.
When Amazon started shipping Echo to UK customers on 28th September, EDF Energy was one of the first UK-specific skills made available to UK customers and the first energy supplier in the UK to offer such services to its customers.
From proof-of-concept to an effective VUI design
Over the last few years, EDF Energy has worked to give customers more direct access and control of their energy accounts. They first created an online sales and service portal, followed by smartphone apps for iOS and Android users.
“Our customers expect digital solutions now,” says Stuart Roberts, Head of Digital Operations at EDF Energy. “We used Alexa as an opportunity to develop a voice channel to extend the online account management experience to voice.”
As the EDF Energy project team refined their proof of concept, they identified four use cases to meet core customer needs and provide a stand-out experience:
- check account balance
- check when next payment is due
- check the contract end date
- submit a meter reading
The EDF Energy team established an initial voice user interface (VUI) framework and collaborated with Amazon to refine the VUI. Investing time up front was key to minimizing changes and risks later in development.
“I would say most of our voice interface was well-developed from our first cycle,” says Bhavesh. “The Amazon team was absolutely brilliant in helping us to evaluate the various options.”
Five sprints to a launch…
The EDF Energy Blue Lab team used an Agile approach to development. They divided the skill development into five two-week sprints. Starting in late June, these sprints were:
- Learn about Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), then authenticate between Alexa and EDF Energy’s systems.
- Attack the simplest intent and learn: check their account balance.
- Develop the most complex intent: submitting a meter read. To accommodate different types of customers, different types of meters and how to read them, the VUI became very complex.
- Implement the other simple intents: payment due date and contract end date.
- Perform a final round of end-to-end testing.
EDF Energy’s project team allowed for another two weeks for Amazon certification. The skill’s certification aligned with the launch of Echo in the UK as planned.
And five critical success factors
Since its launch, the EDF Energy skill maintains 4.7 out of 5 stars and continues to see positive feedback from customers.
Apart from a great team, what are the key to success? Here is Bhavesh’s advice:
- Focus on the VUI first – Designing for voice comes down to understanding and simplifying the customers’ journey. Key internal subject matter experts and Amazon collaborated early in the design process.
- Simplify development — An Agile approach lets you manage and contain changes, as well as keeping the solution modular and clean.
- Do QA testing early and often – Test constantly, using business testers who best understand customers.
- Use a well-defined API for back-end systems —EDF Energy’s “develop-once, use-many” model let them access their back-end systems without needing to make any code changes to existing APIs.
- Use the experts available to you — Call on Amazon’s expertise, especially to get started. “They were very helpful throughout the process. It developed into a collaboration to drive the implementation forward, so we would be ready for the launch.”
Designing to power the future
What’s next for the EDF Energy skill? The company provides an Echo and smart thermostat to members of a dedicated panel of EDF Energy customers. The panel provides in-depth feedback, including video logs of their interactions with Alexa. All that will go into defining the future versions of the skill.
Bhavesh sees a bright future for voice technology in the energy sector. He sees Alexa as a voice service and a hub that lets people integrate devices throughout their home. Consumers will now actively seek out smart devices, since they can control them all through a single interface.
“Increasing customer engagement is at the heart of what EDF Energy sees in voice services. A device that can do more than one function is an appealing factor. That customers can do so much using the same interface means they are more likely to use it to engage with us.”
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