The energy retail market has gone through several distinct ‘eras’ since privatisation in 1998: the establishment of Big Six-dominated competition, the emergence of challenger brands with a star light focus on switching and the issues that it caused, and now a period of data and digitalisation.

What the future of the retail market looks like, and the implications of the current regulatory focus will mean in the long term, is unclear. However, what is clear is that data and digitalisation are key to underpinning the next era of the energy industry with most central bodies and suppliers looking to develop their data and digital offerings. This will entail significant stakeholder buy-in to convince customers of the benefits and prove value for money.

The trouble with old ways

Historically, when developing digital products and upgrading systems, the approach has either been to divest responsibility to technical experts or to form a small user group to aid development.

The problem with the former is that technical experts tend to deliver technically advanced solutions that are too complex for most users and either fail or, after a barrage of criticism, require extensive redesign with input from a small user group.

The issue with the latter is that they intend to be engaged in the first place and provide input based on an engaged user, resulting in a solution that meets their needs but fails to account for wider needs of users or the industry.

Tailored workshops are a typical channel to overcome the challenge of acquiring information so that user needs are understood at the design stage. These should contain diverse user groups so that a full range of views and requests can be gathered, and to avoid one group dominating views. These tend to work when there are a small number of users so engagement can be targeted, or where there are generally good levels of engagement.

However, this runs the risk that some groups of users are missed, or engagement reduces during the design process. This can be addressed through feedback loops and further development after go-live, but still runs the risk of a sub-optimal user experience at go-live.

Customising your toolbox depending on the user

Current technology allows us to develop our data and digital offerings so that they are tailored to the user. At a high level, this means recognising that the data and information that is central to a network operator, for example, is different to that a generator needs, which in turn differs from a supplier or any other market participant.

Going a level down, we can use off-the-shelf software to recognise that a regulation or compliance expert requires different data and information compared to an IT person building and maintaining systems who in turn require different information to an engineer within the same company. At the ultimate level of detail, it is even possible to tailor views to the individual; for example, a connections engineer would be presented different information and data than a network planning engineer.

The ability to tailor ready-made software to company or individual needs is relatively simple once you have a good understanding of different users’ requirements. Traditionally, this has been developed from a group of experts. However, as mentioned, this tends to give a narrow view of requirements.

Cast a wider net

At ElectraLink, our preferred approach is to deploy a variety of customer engagement methods to ensure we capture the views of those that are already engaged as well as less engaged. This is achieved through traditional consultations, workshops and user groups, as well as webinars and targeted bilateral meetings to ensure comprehensive engagement with groups and users who are harder to reach.

This multi-channel approach to customer engagement has been a key factor in our success with digitalising the DCUSA. We started with several multimedia workshops and further incorporated new and seasoned users, subject matter experts and digital professionals through virtual and real-life encounters. The feedback and information these user groups provided formed the basis of our development plan, and through subsequent phases these same methods are delivering more suggestions, requests and requirements to make the go-live solution more user-friendly efficient.

We continue to improve and evolve our offerings based on user feedback, but in general this approach means we go live with services that meet a wide range of user needs and encourage further engagement and refinement while avoiding the need to fire-fight. I see promise in the rest of the energy market adopting similar customer-centric approaches to building the digital era.

This article was first published on LinkedIn.