Managing utility bills in a shared household
When people live together in shared houses they might take on shared responsibility for paying and managing the bills. In many households, people come and go periodically.
Most utility companies do not optimise for this complexity, instead defaulting to a single, individual account holder and shifting the administrative burden onto them.
When things go wrong, companies will only speak to the account holder. People joining or leaving a household also involves additional overheads.
What if it was simple to deal with companies as a group, while also allowing individuals to retain control over the data held about them? How might decision making work? What if utilities could be ’handed over’ to the next occupier, just like keys?
To explore this, we prototyped a service called Bills Box aimed at helping members of a shared household manage their utility bills.
Bills Box helps you share the running of the house
Bills Box helps you split the bills with members of your household, while allowing everyone to see all the accounts in one place.
Connect your utilities in one step
To get started, just point Bills Box at the barcode on the bottom of your utility bill.
Then give permission to your utility company to share information with Bills Box.
As soon as you’ve connected an account, Bills Box uses the Open Utility APIs to download your billing and usage information, so you’ll always know how much you're using and what you're paying.
You can add any utility account that adheres to the Open Utility Standards, letting you see all your household spending in one place.
Adding a housemate is simple
Bills Box helps you put new housemates on the bills – something that used to be time consuming and difficult. This way, there are no awkward surprises when the person who pays the gas moves out, forgetting to tell the others.
Before joining, the new housemate can see what they’re signing up for; once they go ahead, they’re automatically added to the accounts.
Moving house together
Some decisions involve the whole house, and Bills Box makes it easy for you to make decisions as a group. Take moving out, for example.
One housemate can start off the process, then once everyone agrees, Bills Box can tell your provider that you’ve all agreed to move out. If you’re all moving together, Bills Box can even take your accounts with you to the new address.
Helping out the next tenants
As well as tying up loose ends, Bills Box makes it simple for the next tenants. This helps ensure there’s a clean switch, and no chasing bills months after you’ve moved out.
And perhaps Bills Box will make your life simpler next time you move into a new home.
Summary of findings
We learned that although people in shared houses use digital tools to help manage their bills — for example through the use of messenger apps — the experience is sub-optimal. There was a lot of enthusiasm for group consent for joint decisions and shared data, like those in shared households.
All bills in one place
The prospect of being able to see and manage all your bills in one place was well-received by nearly everyone we spoke to. A few people said they’d feel more in control if they could see how much they need to pay and how much they were using.
A couple of participants voiced anxiety about so much of their utilities data being available from their phone or within a single service like Bills Box.
There’s a clear burden when it comes to managing shared bills in a shared household. People struggle to know who’s paid what or to fix anything, unless they’re the named person on the account with the utility company.
The potential to share rights and responsibilities for bills and data was something nearly all participants found to be a positive prospect. There was even excitement about it being easy to be recognised as a group by utility companies, acknowledging the different living situations many people have.
Nearly each person we spoke was very positive about the idea of moving and transferring bills to a new house. They specifically noted the time that would be saved cancelling and setting up billing from one property to the next.
The concept was especially promising to those we spoke to who rent, moving house more often with a regular churn of people moving in and out.
Potential design patterns from this prototype
- Authorise using a letter
- Display multiple utilities
- Add another person to an account
- Get group consent
- Hand over accounts to new people