Have you heard of the Scottish Approach to Service Design?

Practitioner stories
6 min readSep 25, 2021

And if so, what does it mean to you?

This is the question we asked 15 service design practitioners during remote interviews from June to August 2020.

We have spoken with practitioners who had different degrees of awareness about the Scottish Approach to Service Design (SAtSD). Some of them had:

  • contributed to its development to varying degrees
  • practical experience using it with public and third sector organisations
  • heard about it but had not engaged with it or ‘were struggling to understand what it is’

Some information about the SAtSD

Before giving you the analysis, here is some information in case you are not familiar with SAtSD.

“When we started this, we just called it The Scottish Approach to Service Design, because civil servants in the Scottish government had a philosophy called the Scottish Approach to Government and I was trying to explain to them why design connected to how they thought, so I connected the two things and it stuck.” — Cat Macaulay, Chief Design Officer at The Scottish Government

The quote above comes from this video of Cat Macaulay’s talk at the Accessibility Scotland conference in November 2019 — worth a watch!

Scottish Identity

Practitioners had diverse views and opinions, but there was a common understanding that the SAtSD is a repackaging or ‘retelling’ of service design practices. ‘As a practitioner, there is nothing new in the SAtSD’, and ‘it is not critically advancing the discipline’. It is often perceived as ‘a product and a brand’, a ‘cultural change’ or ‘just creating a new context for it’. But, different practitioners have different responses in regards to its Scottish identity.

Special way of doing things

Some see this as a consequence of ‘who runs the Scottish Government’ and disliked its ‘political lens’ and the ‘need’ to express ‘that special Scottish way of doing things’; while others understood that ‘maybe that’s what needs to happen within Scotland just because of the desire to do everything slightly differently’. Because some powers are devolved ‘like the benefits and the healthcare system we can design and implement good policies’. ‘With the Green economy there is a huge space to design more green ways of living’.

A citizen-led approach

It is also seen as an alignment with the Government’s emphasis on community empowerment or ‘almost like a kind of promise from the Scottish Government to take a citizen-led approach to the design of services’. It is a statement that ‘service design is everybody’s business’ not ‘just for the cool kids’. It represents citizens’ ‘right to co-design or at least to influence, to have a say on the services […] how those work’.

So kind of like putting a stake in the ground and saying: “that’s how we want to work, this is the approach that we would like to take and this is our promise to put the citizens at the centre of how we do public services”

A more nuanced Scottish approached is yet to develop

For some, it truly is about the Scottish context and ‘how we apply service design to the challenges we’ve got to deliver good public services in Scotland’, which may have some ‘significant differences to how other people may approach service design’.

The general view was that, in its current state, the SAtSD ‘is just service design’, so perhaps a more nuanced Scottish Approach is yet to develop.

Scotland’s size

Because of its size and ‘the size of the public sector, it’s easier to connect things together’. We can almost get a ‘more council and local view’ on how service design is applied. ‘Have people more involved and taking responsibilities’ in the design and delivery. Maybe even ‘design these services themselves’.

Influence beyond Scotland

Its Scottish identity also functions as branding in the international service design scene, and there is ‘ talk about the approach of Scottish Design’ beyond Scotland’s borders, even though ‘it is just service design’.

The SAtSD in practice

A few practitioners had apply the SAtSD with public and third sector organisations, and their insights suggest that the approach feels prescriptive, which can be ‘dangerous’.

Some thought it feels ‘dogmatic’ about service design’ and ‘doesn’t give you the tools to ask if service design is appropriate in that setting.

“If your introduction to service design is the Scottish Approach — then you have currently a very fixed idea of how things happen, when they happen, and what you use to do those things.”

“It fails to consider the wider context or to supply people with further questions about the environment they are working in”

Not an ‘all encompassing’ tool

Some felt that it is being presented as an ‘all-encompassing tool’, when in fact, it’s more a ‘conversation-starter’ and would benefit from ‘real examples of how it was applied within context’. The problem with this prescriptive approach seems to be that it sets the wrong expectations for public and third sector professionals unfamiliar with design.

“People really hold on to the principles as if they were rules, which can be a little dangerous.”

Service Design ‘is a methodology and the set of principles that you bring to the table to assess whether or not you are doing it in this way’. But the SAtSD ‘says: ‘you should be doing this, you should be doing that’.

The ‘readiness of teams and organisations’ and ‘the emotional impact’ of their journeys were also a concern.

Developing a common language

Nonetheless, the SAtSD gets designers ‘through the door’ and serves as ‘the evidence for why we’re trying to do it’ this way. It is also developing a common language. Public and third sector practitioners ‘are using a lot of the language involved in the tool’, which is ‘really helpful because it allows us to be able to articulate what we do a bit better, and gives people a frame of reference’.

Maturity assessment

Some mentioned the ‘SAtSD assessment’ as really helpful to advocate for service design and say: “look, we have to comply with this, so here is the assessment, we can rate ourselves and see how we are doing and it turns out we probably should be talking to more people”

“It focuses on the process [… ] it sort of says: during your project, have you done this and this? Rather than have you produced this and that outcome”

Hopes and wishes

Practitioners expect that it will become ‘an iterative process’ and continue to be developed and improved with the community’s learning. After all, ‘we have really just started [to] engage citizens in this, and it’s a job that will never be finished’. As third and public sector organisations ‘have to use that approach’ in connection with funding, this iteration is expected.

Some see the ‘the policy landscape in Scotland ready for the SAtSD’ and the SAtSD ‘really well placed’ to move ‘closer to the wider policy landscape’ and ‘to be built in’. They see the SAtSD and ‘different policies active in Scotland or the government hopes and dreams for Scotland’ to converge around ‘community empowerment, ceding power to communities, changing the relationships between government and citizens, and trying to reverse that power dynamic’.

What most practitioners wished for the SAtSD is ‘to be as inclusive as possible and interdisciplinary’. The SAtSD ‘should be something that is available to everyone’ and ‘an ecosystem of people who are creating things around citizens’.

But at the moment, to some, ‘it still feels like a government thing for certain types of government people’.

Practitioners envision a toolkit that ‘makes itself available to all the different areas and departments in the Scottish Government and follows principles almost identical to what the SAtSD is advocating for’, and perhaps ‘eventually, get to that place where service design approach and thinking is built in into everything the government is doing’.

Contextualising Insights

These insights come from 15 remote interviews from June to August 2020. You can learn more about the research project and approach on our website.

Although we speak about service design practice, we use the term service design very broadly.

  • Half of our interviewees self-identified as service designers or have service designer as their job title. Other practitioners using service design approaches have roles in areas such as user research, accessibility, community engagement, user experience design, and design training
  • We interviewed people working in different locations across Scotland
  • Some practitioners worked as freelancers, consultants and contractors; others were employed by design agencies; and others were employed by public or third sector organisations
  • All interviewees had a mid to senior level of experience working in service design and the public/third sector

When we refer to ‘practitioners’, we refer to people who engage in service design approaches and practice within the Scottish public and third sectors independently of their job title.

Want to learn more about the project and want to get involved?

Visit our website, follow us on Medium or on Twitter @PractitionerSt1

Thank you!



Practitioner stories

We are collecting Practitioner stories of Service Design in the Scottish public and third sectors