Price comparison websites and switching services have fast become the most popular way to shop around for gas and electricity.
These services help energy consumers to compare different supplier deals and tariffs and, in turn, can lower their energy bills. Ofgem (the government regulator for electricity and gas markets) and independent advice agencies strongly recommend that consumers use these services before switching energy providers.
However, to date, little research has been done into how accessible these services are and whether they fully meet disabled and older people’s information needs. RiDC’s 2021 research, funded through the Energy Redress Scheme, set out to investigate this through:
- A survey (548 responses) and in-depth interviews (20 panel members) to explore disabled and older energy users' needs and experiences when using energy price comparison websites and switching
- User-evaluations of the accessibility of 16 of the most popular sites and services (identified from the survey) by members of our panel with a range of visual, dexterity, cognitive and learning disabilities.
- Desk research and evaluation of the additional features of 16 of the same websites.
Making the best use of these switching websites and services is key to disabled and older energy consumers being able to make well informed decisions when switching suppliers. This means that they should be able to easily input information to the website or service about their current energy supply; fully access and understand the details of listed energy deals; and know what information is important when choosing or switching energy suppliers or tariffs.
Three quarters (75.5%) of the 548 respondents who completed our survey reported that they use more energy as a result of their disability or impairment(s), while 63.3% are left with higher energy bills because of this. Therefore highlighted the benefit of disabled and older consumers of being able to use price comparison websites to find more affordable energy deals better suited to their needs. The survey showed the following to be the main consumer concerns when using price comparison websites to compare energy deals:
- ‘Trusting the website to give unbiased results and find the best deal’ (65.1%)
- ‘Understanding the details of energy deals’ (53.1%)
- ‘Providing account information (i.e. current energy tariff details, usage/spend)’ (49.3%)
- ‘Knowing what information is important when finding the best deal’ (46.2%)
- ‘Finding information about the Warm Home Discount (WHD) scheme’ (42.7%)
- Only 21% of respondents from our survey said that they were familiar with Ofgem accreditation or that they had come across its logo. But 63% said that they would be more likely to trust a price comparison website if it were OFGEM accredited
In order for users with digital accessibility needs to successfully navigate through the energy comparison process, it’s crucial that a price comparison website supports the following accessibility features:
- Clear instructions and support
- Support for screen-readers
- Support for screen magnification software and changes made to text size or colour on a device or web browser
- Keyboard access
- Readable text size
- Good colour contrast
- Plain and understandable language
- Easily understood details of energy deals
Members of our Consumer Panel evaluated the accessibility of 16 most popular sites (identified in our survey).
- For findings see our consumer guidance How Accessible are energy price comparison websites?
- To read about our research methodology read our Research Note.
Additional important website and service features
Our survey and in-depth interviews identified a number of additional features that older and disabled consumers value when choosing and using a switching website.
These features are published in full within our consumer guidance How Accessible are energy price comparison websites? In summary these features included:
- Ofgem accreditation
- A telephone and/ or chat service
- Ability to tailor results according to your energy requirements, including supplier customer service rating, green energy deals, no exit fees, Warm Home Discount etc.
- Accessibility statement on the website
The availability of these features is important for those who are not confident internet users, experience difficulties accessing websites, or lack trust in engaging with price comparison websites. A telephone helpline should ideally be displayed on the top of every webpage throughout the energy comparison process in case the user encounters any difficulties. The provision of a chat service is also particularly important for those who have communication or hearing impairments.
As well as informing consumers, we hope that the research findings will provide increased understanding for industry, regulators and policy makers about the needs and experiences of disabled and older energy consumers when comparing energy deals and switching. Below we propose some future actions to mitigate the problems highlighted, identifying the organisations recommended to make the change.
Energy switching site and service providers
- Carry out UX research focused on the accessibility of the websites to ensure easy access by disabled users including those using assistive technologies.
- Seek to achieve as a minimum WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standards to help widen your customer base to include disabled and older users. Websites that have high standards of accessibility are also easier to use for all users.
- Provide a statement on the website about what measures are being taken to ensure the website is accessible.
- Prominently display the Ofgem Accreditation logo if you have it – consumers value independent validation of the accuracy of information.
- Provide both a customer telephone helpline and message chat service (for those with hearing or communication impairments) for more personal customer service. Customers who lack confidence using the internet or experience difficulties accessing websites will value these contact options.
- Provide as many filter tools as possible on the results’ page to ensure that disabled users are provided with energy deals that support their energy requirements. Users should be able to filter energy deals with high supplier ratings; a warm home discount scheme; green energy; no exit fees and the option for paper as well as paperless billing.
- Ensure that the Warm Home Discount scheme is listed in the details of listed energy deals, to protect vulnerable consumers.
Ofgem – the regulator
- Include web accessibility (min WCAG 2.1 AA) as a requirement within the Ofgem accreditation scheme. Websites that have high standards of accessibility are easier to use for all users.
- Ensure that accreditation criteria includes listing provider participation in the Warm Home Discount scheme, to protect vulnerable consumers.
- Encourage more prominent visibility on Ofgem accredited switching websites of the Ofgem accreditation logo and what it represents, thereby increasing awareness of it.
Consumer advice organisations
- Promote greater consumer awareness of the Ofgem accreditation scheme for energy price comparison websites.
- Promote switching sites to vulnerable consumers that scored highly in terms of accessibility and usability.
- Ensure vulnerable consumers are aware that the Warm Homes Discount is not available from all energy providers, and to check before switching.
- Provide assistance in accessing and using switching sites to those consumers who require it.
To find out more about this research contact Catherine Cashman.