The ComEd Prepaid Program

Award: ComEd student Innovation contest, First Place

by SzuYing Ching, Xinli Lin, special thanks to HsinCheng Lin, Darren Gene Peterson, David LaPorte.  

Year: 2014

Role: Design research, Strategy, Business design, User experience design 

Contest description: Envision a product, service or software app that uses smart meter data to help low-income customers better manage their electric bill and save money. 

What is The ComEd Prepaid Program?

How might we help low-income customers saving their electricity bills by innovation and design thinking?

ComEd Student Innovation Contest was a design competition for helping low-income customers better manage their electric bill and save money. It got more than 60 students, 47 teams in total from colleges and universities across northern Illinois entered. 

Hsin-Cheng Lin, Xinli Lin and I won the first place of the contest with our concept - The ComEd Prepaid Program.



Scenario & Storyboard



  1. Prepaid System: Users add credit to their accounts with prepaid value cards sold in convenient stores and online. At that time, they are asked to select a target bonus date as their personal savings goal, options for which are derived from ComEd data on average usage for similar account holders.

  2. Real-time tracking: With a smart meter installed at home, customers have online and mobile access to real-time energy use and price data, and details on their remaining account value, both helping them to manage their usage instantaneously.

  3. Customized Tips: Based on customer usage data collected by ComEd, we offer users personalized tips to help them change their energy use behaviors and take actions to efficiently reduce their electricity expenses.

  4. Rewards: Once the user achieves his/her goal of maintaining a positive account balance beyond their preselected bonus date, they will rewards to their accounts.


UI design




1. Context research

2. 6 User interviews

4. Reframing the challenge

5. Ideation - 40 concepts

6. Concept Evaluation

7. Interface Design - 3 iterations

8. Video Production - 2 minutes concept intro video

9. Concept Testing

In the beginning, we wanted to learn more about the low-income customer. We looked up low-income's shopping behavior, economic condition and government financial programs. Afterwards, we conducted 6 interviews in order to learn how people perceive their electricity bills psychologically and emotionally.




1. Electricity bill (kilowatt-hour) is an abstract concept

“Energy saving is so abstract. I'm wondering whether the data can be interpreted to more relevant and concrete concepts to me.” (a mom with a fifth grade kid)
“Everything is a tradeoff. I would like to know how can I use the money I saved from electricity.” (an mechanical engineer)

2. Budgeting is more important for low-income customers than the average customer

A study conducted by Yale university shown that compare to average customers, low-income customers need to better budget their bills. They often don't have stable incomes and have to pay loans. Especially in a family with larger numbers of young members, low-income customers shown considerable overspending on appliances, TV sets and phonographs.

3. Customers need a easily access channel to learn electricity consumption

Even ComEd is currently providing customers with the real-time pricing program and energy saving program, but most customers don't know these programs. Customers seldom check utility company's website nor email, so they usually pay a flat rate for the utility company.

"If company send me email, I WILL forget to read the information . but I can always check on my app." ( the participant was talking about an app which educates people to purchase vegetables.)

4. The orthodoxy : electricity bill is paid by month

Several participants said that they were having a hard time to record how they consume the energy because when they got the bill, it was a month later. As a result, they couldn't link their energy consuming behavior with their electricity bill. 



The above findings helped us to rephrase our challenge:

"How might we educate low-income customers by translating the electricity bill and provide motivations for them to save their energy consumption?"



According to our research, we identify the energy consumption's 5 big areas , including social influence, creating meanings of saving, education and knowledge, context and time, and motivation. Then, we brainstormed more than 40 ideas according to these 5 areas. We used Vijay Kumar's concept evaluation framework in his 101 design methods.


Why The ComEd Prepaid Program?

Based on studies of loss aversion in the field of Behavioral Economics, the ComEd Prepaid Program allows users to purchase their electricity in advance. Specifically, the theory of loss aversion holds that people tend to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The ComEd Prepaid Program therefore brings future losses to the present moment to help customers become more aware of how they spend their money.
In addition, with real-time usage tracking, our program motivates users to reduce their electricity use by transforming the typically abstract concept of monthly usage into something more concrete: a current energy balance.
For low-income customers who need to reduce their electricity expenses, we offer a special program, featuring a prepaid value card, real-time tracking of energy usage, customized energy saving tips and credit rewards. Unlike traditional electricity programs, we provide customers with a concrete understanding of their electricity usage, allowing them to manage their usage anytime and anywhere, and helping them to change their behaviors to efficiently save on electricity expenses.

Project Process

Concept Testing

Concept Testing


Low income dwellings 

This image is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International :

Electricity bill



Insights & finding board