Designing a billing system flexible enough for every business model

Perhaps the most intimate and crucial relationship between businesses and consumers is transactional. And in many cases, this relationship is muddled with archaic processes that prevent businesses from scaling, lower consumer trust and overall, diminish the bottom line.

I cofounded RemoteCycle with Adam Walker in February 2013 to solve these billing problems. We were fueled by a last-mile paradox in emerging and frontier markets: amazing and innovative products (goods and services) have manifested to reshape livelihoods and tap billion-person markets, but the limited methods by which consumers pay for these products prohibits them from scaling. Most of this transactional relationship is comprised within the processes of billing.

My role:   User research, user experience and interface design, product management, 

We observed significant losses related to manual processes associated with calculating bills, sending them and receiving payments. 

Adam and I developed an intimate understanding of recurring billing issues while working in the utility sector with Local Energy Technology. Our key assumption was that businesses with these types of subscription relationships were costed significantly by the overhead associated with developing paper bills and collecting cash payments. We noticed these issues were particularly costly in mobile-first markets like Kenya, India, Haiti and Brazil where everything happens manually. Our initial product vision was a system that would leverage the ubiquity of cellphone SMS and mobile money to help SMBs overcome significant barriers related to recurring revenue.

Beginning with a paper storyboard, we interviewed and tested our assumptions with a wide range of potential customers.

I storyboarded our initial product vision into a user experience to ground these interviews, conducted with 50+ target customers in a myriad of go-to markets: social enterprises selling products with payment plans, micro energy providers, micro-financial institutions, schools, media subscription companies, etc.

System storyboard:

Almost 50 interviews revealed that many different kinds of recurring billing systems (subscription) had the same problems: calculating bills, sending them and receiving payment. 

We envisioned a world where the unbanked could participate in the formal economy. 

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We designed and built our first prototype based on a vision of universal mobile money based billing system.

Adam and I worked in tandem for 2 months, researching the market and talking with customers while iterating the product's design. In May 2013 we developed a prototype with 2 backend engineers using a Bootstrap template. Our prototype web app allowed us to demonstrate our product offering to customers. Video of Adam demoing the RemoteCycle prototype is here.

We moved to Nairobi to launch our product in the M-Pesa (mobile money) arena and understand target customers' workflow first-hand.  

I conducted contextual inquiries with two different service businesses, including SmartLife. SmartLife distributes filtered water on a subscription basis to 1000 families in two Nairobi exurbs. I interviewed sales and office managers and key artifacts, including receipts, Excel spreadsheets, subscription enrollment sheets, and customer records to understand how SmartLife managed their customer billing.

Key findings were that SmartLife spent an exorbitant amount of overhead to manually update spreadsheets, remind customers to pay each week, receive cash payments, call customers to collect past-due payments, and subscribe customers to water plans. How could we solve their billing headache and lower overhead expenditures?

The billing headache:

How can businesses manage thousands of billing subscriptions?

Using findings from contextual inquiry studies and feedback from our first prototype, I designed a new billing system that would automate the billing process. 

Billing system narrative:

System diagrams

I built a new prototype using the billing system design.

Without enough funding for continued contract development on our Bootstrap prototype, I developed a backend database and front-end user interface with Google Sheets / Forms. While complex and requiring almost 100 spreadsheets, this work allowed me harmonized database decisions with design ones. 

Information architecture:


We successfully piloted our system with 10 water subscribers

I trained 2 SmartLife management and sales staff and tested for 6 weeks. 

Managing water subscription bills: 

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Presenting our prototype to potential partners and investors at DEMO Africa


Using this prototype, I translated the design into a higher fidelity user-interface.

The flexibility of the Google Sheet and Forms based prototype allowed me to implement changes quickly from the pilot test period. This system also helped me work through design issues because everything had to be coherent to work. As a result, I was able to translate the RemoteCycle design directly into a finished user interface. 

Information Architecture:

User interface: