Apr 11, 2023

Building HelpFirst — March

How we got started on building HelpFirst

Andy Bell

SIDE recently won a Scottish Government CivTech competition. The challenge, set by Citizen Advice Scotland’s Extra Help Unit, is to

‘identify and prioritise support for people in the most vulnerable situations, starting with those having energy problems.’

Our winning proposal is HelpFirst, a machine-learning tool that empowers care organisations to give vulnerable clients the priority they deserve. We are developing HelpFirst on a 14-week Accelerator programme, hurtling towards Demo Day on June 27th.

We are planning to share project notes every month. This is partly to ensure that the broader network of stakeholders has visibility into our progress, partly to help crystallise our thinking, and partly to shine a light on CivTech, which is a brilliant initiative to get innovation into government procurement.

User Research

We started the month with user research interviews.

HelpFirst comprises a batch of features within Dynamics 365 which provide visual cues as to the level of risk within cases. We asked caseworkers and managers which of the following features they would find most useful.

Figure 1: Five possible features within HelpFirst. Which do case workers really want?

Inbox prioritisation
HelpFirst calculates a score for each case so that case workers can prioritise cases by vulnerability.

Case synopsis
A quick overview of why a case has been given a certain rating.

Flagging when the HelpFirst score has changed.

We hypothesised that there are dimensions to vulnerability (e.g. mental health, financial risk, vulnerability) and that visualising them would help a caseworker grasp the essence of a case

The ability to ask questions of a case, to quickly get back up to speed with a certain case.

Figure 2: And the winner is… Inbox Prioritisation

Of course, user testing isn’t just some crass voting procedure. It’s a fine-grained process of building intuition so product designers can design something that users really want… but it is sometimes illuminating to have a vote. In Figure 2, we see that case workers really liked the inbox prioritisation feature.

Figure 3: What would case workers most like help with?

You might object to the vote in Figure 2. Perhaps case workers are just responding to the feature that looks nice, rather than the one they really need. Luckily, right at the start of the user research sessions, we asked case workers to rank what they needed help with most. The top-ranked reply was ‘Prioritising cases according to need’, exactly the functionality of the Inbox Prioritisation feature.

It is interesting to note that the second most popular reply, ‘Communicating with energy companies more efficiently’, wasn’t on our radar — but it is now something we’ll be thinking about.

Suggestions about the HelpFirst score

We heard several interesting ideas during user research.

One suggestion was to call the number a HelpFirst score, rather than a vulnerability score. This means that if a client does a data access request, they don’t see a vulnerability score (which sounds negative) but see a HelpFirst score (which sounds positive). It’s also a more accurate representation of our aim: HelpFirst literally provides guidance on who to HelpFirst. A related suggestion was to call the number an indication rather than a score.

Another idea was to switch the order of the numbers around. That is, have ‘1’ as highest priority and ‘10’ as lowest priority. ‘1’ sounds like front of the queue. We talk about Priority 1 being top priority. Also, make the numbers whole integers, as decimals suggest more precision than we have.

We heard the suggestion to be careful of using too much red. The previous system, prior to Dynamics 365, had lots of red and that created a stressful work environment. Caseworkers are operating in a situation where almost every client is a high priority; as product designers, we need to find ways to represent gradations of that priority without causing unnecessary stress.

Other requirements

There were a few other requirements that we heard more than once.

  • There are green buttons that indicate a new response on a case. It would be useful if there were different colours to distinguish between responses from clients and responses from energy companies, as this has different implications for caseworkers.
  • Printing letters currently takes a long time. There seem to be two problems. One is merging to edit and publish, and the other is to actually get on the remote printer.
  • Small messages (e.g. an email saying ‘Thanks’) reset the timer on SLAs. There is no way to manually adjust it back, and so often the timer isn’t showing the right schedule. Related to this, some caseworkers struggled to find an effective way to set reminders or to flag cases they wanted to keep an eye on.

Next up

Through April, we will start building a prototype of the HelpFirst within Dynamics. We’ve got a couple of different ideas on how to approach this calculation underlying the HelpFirst score. It will take trial and error to figure out what works best. Also, we will conduct workshops with expert EHU caseworkers to better understand the nuance of what the HelpFirst score should capture.

One of my favourite comments from user research was hearing the description of looking at the caseload as ‘name soup’. In my head, the unofficial tagline for HelpFirst has become ‘Fighting Name Soup’. 💪🍜

The Priority Services Register (PSR) is a key tool that energy suppliers use to fulfil their responsibilities to vulnerable customers. But there isn't just one register. Every energy company has their own PSR and the application forms vary unpredictably from supplier to supplier. 

As part of our CivTech Challenge, we’ve been researching best practice across the industry. We were left with lots of questions:

  • Why is 'restricted hand movement' a vulnerability that almost all suppliers assess?
  • Why are archaic phrases like ‘bedridden’ used?
  • Why does only one supplier check if their vulnerable customers use ‘electric showering’? 

Alas, we weren't able to fully answer these questions. But here’s a visual guide to various PSR forms, so you can get an overview of the landscape.  


We accessed PSR application forms for Ovo Energy, British Gas, SSE, Octopus, EDF, Shell and Utilita. For many other suppliers, access is restricted.

The first observation is that the application forms are extremely varied: 

  • We’ve grouped questions into categories to make things a bit easier to read, however the forms themselves come in very different structures.  Some offer all their options in one long list, some separate into smaller sections.  Some only show certain sections once a customer has selected a particular option (e.g. selecting ‘sight loss’ gets you extra questions on the Shell application).
  • Several vulnerabilities are only mentioned by one supplier. Only one asks about autism, and another asks about breathing difficulties. The following options only showed up once: ‘female presence preferred’, ‘longer time to answer the door’ and ‘bedridden’.
  • For sensory needs: ‘blind’ and ‘partially sighted’ are separate options in all the forms. 'Hearing impairment' and 'deaf' are combined in half the forms and the former is not asked at all in one. This may be contentious, as hearing impairment and being deaf are very different conditions.
  • Some suppliers include options for accessible information provision in the same form (i.e. braille, large print letters, etc.) Others link to an additional form, or do not reference it at all.
  • When temporary conditions are mentioned, only some suppliers allow the customer to select a date when they believe the condition will no longer apply.
  • Most of the forms are multiple choice, limiting to what the supplier chooses to ask about.  Occasionally the supplier (e.g. EDF) gives the customer a larger space to talk about their conditions, equipment and needs in more detail.

Next, we dive deeper into the application forms.

Medical Conditions2

Question asked
Question asked (with variations)
Question not asked
Speech impairment
Poor sense of smell/taste
Mental health
Dementia(s)/cognitive impairment
Non-English speaker
Chronic or serious illness
Partially sighted
Developmental condition
Restricted hand movement
Pensionable age
Physical impairment
Unable to answer door
Learning difficulties
Anxiety or depression
Heart condition
Living alone
Breathing difficulties
Receive disability benefits

EDF’s application form has the highest number of options related to medical conditions (20 in total) with British Gas and Utilita featuring the lowest (13).  EDF also features options which cover multiple medical conditions (e.g. 'breathing difficulties', 'disability benefits') more frequently than other suppliers. SSE has the highest number of options for learning and mental health related conditions (including 'dyslexia', 'autism', 'learning difficulties' and 'anxiety/depression').

There is some overlap within options, which could be confusing. For example, SSE lists both ‘developmental condition’ and ‘autism’ separately, even though the latter is a type of the former. Another example is the ‘mental ill health’ and ‘anxiety/depression’ options, again found in the SSE form. It is not clear if customers should tick both or only the more specific option.

All organisations feature options to indicate older age, however they specify a variety of different ages as the lower threshold, including:  60+, 65+, 'pensionable age' or 'pensioner'.  British Gas have two separate options relating to older age ('pensionable age (65 and over)' and 'age 75 and over').

There is some degree of consistency across organisations. This appears to be where specific conditions have been mentioned within the Ofgem guidance (for instance, 'restricted hand movement' appears in all but one form, in spite of the fact this is a very specific need).

Language Used

The language used across suppliers is very inconsistent. SSE uses ‘hard of hearing’ and ‘deaf’ to describe hearing loss-related needs, while other suppliers employ terms such as ‘hearing impairment’ or ‘hearing impaired’.

Some options have multiple potential meanings: ‘carer’ could refer to the respondent either needing a carer or being a carer for someone else.

All suppliers ask about speech and language difficulties and broader language barriers. However there is no shared way of asking whether a customer speaks English. Variations include: 'unable to communicate in English', 'language barrier' and 'foreign language speaker'.

‘Unable to communicate in English’ (used by Octopus and Ovo) is somewhat ambiguous. Customers might take it to mean having a different first language or having a speech condition. The requirements are quite different: with the former you could use an interpreter or multilingual support, with the latter you would need different support.

Medical Equipment3

Question asked
Question asked (with variations)
Question not asked
Stairlift/hoist/electric Bed
Heart/lung or ventilator machine
Dialysis, feeding pump automated medication
Nebuliser or apnoea monitor
Careline/telecare system
Medicine refridgeration
Water dependent
Medically dependent on showering/bathing
Oxygen concentrator
Oxygen use
MDE electric showering
Mains powered electric medical equip
Life support
Wheelchair user
Medical or other critical dependency

Options Offered

British Gas do not offer any specific options for types of medical equipment: they solely offer the generic category ‘mains powered electric medical equipment’.  All other organisations surveyed have more specific options.  These are broadly consistent across suppliers with some more limited options (e.g. ‘wheelchair’, ‘MDE electric showering’). 

Most organisations (bar British Gas and EDF) also ask about reliance on water.

Language Used

It is unclear what is meant by the ‘life support’ option used by EDF. Often the phrase ‘life support machine’ refers to a ventilator, but EDF also have a separate option for ‘heart and lung ventilators’. It could mean life support as a condition or set of needs but that seems too broad for the PSR.

Temporary Changes

In a rare show of unanimity, all suppliers offer the same options for temporary changes.

Question asked
Young adult
householder <18
Children age 5
and under
Temporary life change (bereavement/pregnancy)
Post hospital recovery

Other Questions

Question asked
Question not asked
Additional presence preferred
Regular meter readings
Move meter to support access
Extra time to answer door
Female presence preferred
Duplicate bill to family
Power of attorney
Financial difficulties


All suppliers offered the option of setting up a password or PIN. This is usually so a technician can state this password as an additional security measure on home visits. Two suppliers required a 6-letter password, one an 8-letter password and one a 10-letter password.  A final supplier did not specify length.  An unfortunate side effect of this variation is that if an individual were to move supplier, they may need to change their password and remember a new one. (Note: not shown in an infographic.)

Life Scenarios

Varying from the multiple choice standard, Shell veer into first person narratives. In their ‘Nominee Scheme’ section of the form, they feature an additional tick box option: ‘I can be easily confused and worried by communications from my energy supplier’. When asking about meter support they offer: ‘I have a prepayment meter and no-one in my household is able to safely read it or top it up’.

Accessibility Information4

Question asked
Question asked (with variations)
Question not asked
Large print letter
Alternative language: please specify
Black and white letter
Colour contrast
Arial font
Large print letter in black and white

Organisations vary on including accessibility questions on their PSR form. Ovo offers seven different accessibility options for receiving information, while Shell offers a single broad range checkbox.


Suppliers diverge considerably in what information they collect on their customers to register them for Priority Services support.

On our travels we encountered the aspiration to create a more standardised or universal PSR. Initiatives like the Vulnerability Registration Service and Experian’s Support Hub aim in this direction. In the future we are keen to explore the user experience of these services and how they aid vulnerable customers.  

In the meantime, we hope this analysis will prove useful if you are looking to improve the experience of vulnerable energy customers. Any questions or comments, contact We’d love to hear from you!

  1. SSE was acquired by Ovo Energy in 2020.  They hadn't completed their move over when we started this research and were still registering people to their PSR. We’ve included them in this analysis as their approach was interesting with many mental health and developmental condition-type questions.
  2. Some questions have been condensed in the infographics. Numbers referenced in the discussion refer to the full options as available on the questionnaires, but the infographics demonstrate a condensed version for brevity and ease of visualisation. Full original data is available on request.
  3. 'Heart/lung machine & ventilator' is the most common formulation of question regarding this equipment. However EDF separates these questions into: 'heart/lung machine' and 'ventilator'.
  4. Octopus and British Gas do not ask about accessibility. Shell only offers a general ‘accessible information’ needs tick box if the customer has earlier selected that they have a visual impairment. This does not mean they do not record this information elsewhere, where these questions did not appear on their forms we were not able to verify what (or if) they ask about accessible information.

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