M-pesa is the poster child for the mobile revolution in Kenya. Every publication that has written about the mobile revolution here almost always uses M-pesa as the case study. As a result, a lot has been written about Mpesa. However, there is little out there about the M-pesa user experience. I have found it frustrating. The peer-to-peer money transfer service is fairly easy to use. However, with Safaricom’s move into the bill payments space the experience has become messy. Dubbed Lipa na M-pesa, the bill payment service allows customers to do bill payments using M-pesa. Its UX is quite messy.

However, before I review the Lipa na M-pesa experience let me first give a definition of what I mean by UX.

Based on my experience, User eXperience is one of the most confusing terms I have ever encountered. Everyone has their own definition! To explain UX, I will use what is referred to as the components of UX. It isn’t a list that has been agreed on universally but it is what describes UX the best to me. The four are:

  • Value — does the product help the user achieve something useful? Is it better than the alternatives out there?
  • Usability — now that there is value in using the product, are people able to realize the value of the product? Can the user figure out how to carry out the actions necessary to realize the value?
  • Desirability — is it fun, attractive, and pleasant to use the product?
  • Adoptability — how easy is it for the user to find and start using the product?

I will use the four components to explain why I think the Lipa na Mpesa UX experience can be improved significantly.

I use the Lipa na M-pesa service a lot. It is a convenient way to pay for things. Many times I have found myself transferring money from my bank account to Mpesa and then paying bills from Mpesa. I only use my cards at what I would refer to as trusted outlets. This is especially important after the Shell fuel station incident where an attendant had a card reader that was copying card details. Despite being Kalenjin and Kalenjins being known as long distance runners, I don’t fancy chasing fuel attendants down the road.

A typical trip to the supermarket will have me paying my bill using Mpesa. The steps to complete a payment using Mpesa are not few:

  1. Get my phone from the pocket and search for the Sim Toolkit
  2. Select Mpesa
  3. Select Lipa na Mpesa
  4. Ask the teller two or three times if I am supposed to use ‘Buy Goods and Services’ or ‘Pay Bill’. I can’t understand what the difference between the two is
  5. Select ‘Buy Goods and Services’ after the teller answers with a look that implies that there is something wrong ‘upstairs’
  6. Spend 30 seconds looking for the till number even though it is right in front of me (I don’t think I share this problem with other people but it is my experience)
  7. Key in the till no. and get it wrong on the first and second try
  8. Turn around and apologize to the customers in line as I am sure they are wondering why it is taking that long.
  9. Key in the amount to be paid
  10. Confirm that the amount and the till number are both right
  11. Awkwardly wait for the Mpesa confirmation message
  12. Handover my phone to the teller so that he/she can confirm that I have paid
  13. The teller returns my phone and I walk away ashamedly feeling like I have done a great injustice to humanity
  14. Swear never to use Mpesa to pay my bill at the supermarket again

What goes through my mind during this process? In general, I find the experience to be stressful, frustrating, condescending, and inefficient. These feelings are particularly heightened when you are buying items that our religious nation frowns upon. Next time you want to pay using Mpesa please make sure you don’t have items like condoms and alcohol on your tray :-).

Is the service valuable? Yes, it is. Most times I have money on my Mpesa and nowhere else. However, if I have money on my debit card I would rather pay using that. The steps are as follows:

  1. Get my card from the wallet
  2. Put it in the PDQ
  3. Key in my PIN
  4. Confirm the transaction

That is way easier! Why then do I still use Mpesa? Even better, why do other people use it a lot even though it isn’t the easiest way to pay.

Mpesa wins on adoptability. It is really easy to find and start using. You can literally find it anywhere! Additionally, it has immense value as a good number of people either don’t have bank accounts or don’t use them that much. To a great extent, you can also say Mpesa has won on usability. Many people find it easy to use.

What is the main challenge then?

Based on what I have shared so far, it seems Mpesa is almost perfect. It has shown clear value, is relatively easy to use, and is readily adoptable. According to me, Lipa na Mpesa fails at desirability!

Earlier, I described the feelings I go through while paying a bill using Mpesa. The process is stressful, frustrating, condescending, and inefficient.

Why condescending? In this age and era, why do we have to use what would be considered as stone age tech? Why own a smartphone and yet you can’t leverage the great features it has to make your life easier?I am not saying the service shouldn’t be available via USSD (which is available for all types of phones) but rather that I should be able to leverage my smartphone to make the process easier.

It is stressful because I can easily make a mistake when keying in the till number or the amount. If this happens, I will have to go through the reversal process which involves contacting Mpesa support. Luckily, Mpesa offers really good support (Side note: Zuku should spend a couple of months learning from them).

It is frustrating and inefficient just because of the number of steps I need to go through to complete the payment.

Could this be improved?

It is always easy to criticize a product until you are part of the team involved in building it. Additionally, most of the challenges pointed out above are probably known by they Mpesa team. The closest alternative so far that I know of is the Mpesa debit card which was launched a couple of months ago. This is a good option too but it doesn’t mean the mobile channel can’t be improved. The main challenge with the card is that you have to convince people to acquire it. Why not fix the channel that your existing customers already use?

When Safaricom acquired M-ledger and rebranded it as Safaricom M-ledger, I was a happy man. I was sure M-ledger would evolve into the Mpesa app. Unfortunately, this never happened. In fact, M-ledger seems to be stuck. Beyond the integration to Mpesa so that it can automatically pick your transactions, I don’t think there has been any other significant improvement. Instead, Safaricom has focussed their efforts on their own app MySafaricom app. It is a great app but the most important thing to me is missing: I can’t use it to do Mpesa transactions. The most I can get out of it is my Mpesa statement.

There might be many reasons as to why there isn’t a Mpesa mobile app but I believe that the UX can improve significantly once they have a good mobile app. A reliable source informs me that Safaricom is already testing the Mpesa app. I hope it hits the market soon.

How would I improve the Lipa na Mpesa experience? I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about different ways this can be done so excuse me if the ideas shared don’t sound well thought out.

First, I would start with the simple things. Some fixes don’t need an app. One of the things I dislike the most is having to give the cashier my phone so that the cashier can check if I have paid. If there was a way I could show them a message that doesn’t include my balance, that would be a great place to start. It would be even better if I didn’t have to show them my message at all. Some merchants are already doing this. Why can’t all of them do so?

Second, I would commit a significant amount of resources to building a very good Mpesa mobile application. The essence of having a smartphone is so that you can leverage the features it has to do things in an easier way. All smartphones have the ability to use QR codes. Unlike barcodes which hold information only horizontally, QR codes also store information vertically. This means that you can store more information. When shopping, I envision a situation where the teller users an app provided by Safaricom to scan a QR code which will pick the till number and amount. From there I just need to confirm the amount while entering the PIN. This can also be done using NFC (Near Field Communication). In this case, I would just need to tap or put my phone next to the payment terminal and it will pick the till number and the amount. The only remaining action would be confirming the amount and keying in my PIN.

However, this presents a bit of a challenge as merchants will have to tweak their Point of Sales (POS) terminal to allow for this mode of payment. The net effect for the bigger merchants is a shorter payment period leading to better utilization of their tellers. For customers, anything that makes their life easier is a bonus. For Safaricom, it is a longer term play. To stay ahead in the payment ecosystem they need to be agile and adapt to the changes in technology. Safaricom kickstarted the mobile payment in Kenya but as it stands as the biggest hindrance to the evolution of the space with their archaic way of doing things.

What do you think? Don’t hesitate to leave your comments below or ping me on Twitter.

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