Mar 8, 2024

Designing for Citizen Needs*

*That don't require more funding or structural improvements to public services. Sadly, that's out of scope.

Lucy King

Citizens Advice support clients with a huge range of issues. However, the experience on both sides can sometimes feel overwhelming, frustrating or lonely. We believe that large language models (LLMs) could make a massive difference and, funded by Innovate UK, we’re working with staff and clients to co-design innovative solutions.

What’s happened so far

  1. Background research
  2. In-person interviews and observations (Edinburgh & Perth Bureaux)
  3. Making sense of it all
    Turning the research and experiences into key insights, pain points and needs.
  4. Evaluation of ideas
    An initial review of the most promising concepts.

What we’ve learnt

Well, the main need - obviously - is for more funding, resulting in better public services.

Unfortunately, we don’t feel confident in solving that problem, even with the incredible talent of Chat-GPT! So we’ve honed in on 4 main areas that felt especially compelling, impactful and full of potential for using AI well.

1. The overwhelming nature of problems

A box overflowing with messy balls of yarn

Clients find it hard to know where to start, and might avoid a problem for a while because of this, ending up feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

”I don't know where to start really.”
"It was just too much.”

Advisors want to help clients, but their first exposure problem can be long, difficult to untangle, and/or without all the relevant details, leaving advisors feeling frustrated and unable to do their best job.

”Some people can't define their problem... they give you a story and then you have to understand what the key words are and pick out a starting point from the mess.”
“It should have been a quick one!”

2. The difficulties of connecting clients and advisors in ways that work for everyone

Two people standing on a map, looking for each other but not at each other.

Clients all have different preferences and needs when it comes to accessing support, and they are not all being met - it can feel so hard to get help and they feel frustrated and worried they won’t ever sort their problem out.

"[told she won’t be seen today] Oh you're joking… I've just run here from...”
”I sent an email but never got an answer.”
”Booking an appointment to get a phone call or Skype appointment, etc. would have been good.”
”If I could have emailed and said I need help to fill in this form, here's the pics… or text message even.”

Advisors also have different needs and preferences for delivering support which have to be met. They are held back by the volume of demand and breakdowns in the system e.g. missed callbacks.

”As soon as you have appointments [bookings] you have no shows.”
”People call up a lot just to book an appointment.”
”You need to find the right volunteers for the right things… some people like to do it remote - email works better [for them].”

3. The struggle for clients to take actions

A woman in a headscarf throwing away a crumpled up piece of paper and looking frustrated.

Clients consistently have to fill in forms or communicate with services in ways they don’t feel entirely confident with or have experience with, so they worry about making mistakes and feel like they can’t do it alone. This makes them feel helpless and panicked.

“It's a book! think they do it to put people off”
“I want to do it properly, without problems - if I go through it, I want to make sure it works”
“I have the letters and I don't get it, they talk in a way that.. i don’t understand”

Advisors are trying to empower clients as much as possible, but often clients have little confidence in taking actions by themselves and need supported through each step.

”Sometimes people say "oh I can't touch that”, but one of us sitting there with them, giving them support can help.”
“We kind of try not to - we want to empower clients, better use of resources if they do it.”
“[form filling] Oh my God, that's a requirement that is never ending.”

4. The need of clients for nuance, experience and reassurance

A post it note with a smiley face on it sitting on top of a stack of papers.

Clients have their own specific, unique circumstance which they’ve likely never experienced before, and they need to be sure of how general advice applies to them - content online never seems specific or detailed enough, or they are left unsure about the next step, and just want some reassurance. This makes them feel insecure and uncertain.

"I'm pretty sure I know what's going on… I just want confirmation.”

What's Next:

  • Gather feedback from stakeholders (including you!) to determine which areas feel most compelling
  • Co-design sessions that bring advisors/staff and clients together
  • Solution sketching and further evaluation

Questions we’d like your take on:

  • What thoughts or feelings have been sparked by what you've read?
  • What excites / bores / annoys you?
  • What have we got spot on, and what have we missed?
  • Are there any concerns or fears bubbling up for you?
  • How (if at all) could you be involved with the next stages of this project?

Speak your mind! 

Email to arrange a chat, we’d love to hear from you.

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.