Motivations, skills and learning of the practitioners

Practitioner stories
9 min readApr 22, 2021

We continue to synthesise our data and write up some of our insights. This is the second article of our series summarising what we are learning. You can read the first one here.

Contextualising the insights

These insights come from 15 remote interviews and one online workshop. You can learn more about the research project and approach on our website.

Our interview questions were very broad and we got a wide range of perspectives, but we do not know if these views are really representative of the community.

This is why we are now developing questionnaires to find convergences and divergences across the practitioners in the community. But individuals’ experiences and stories still offer relevant insights and reveal interesting debates.

Most of the insights from this summary come from our theme on Skills and learning. You can find all the quotes for this theme on the website or on the Miro board.

The views in this summary are often of two to three people. We tried to make explicit when we include views expressed by only one person, or shared by many participants.

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
  • We interviewed people working in different locations across Scotland
  • All interviewees had a mid to senior level of experience working in service design and 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.

Survey: your journey to service design practice

illustration to show a journey to service design

We plan to explore this theme further and have a survey for you to tell us about your journey to service design.

If you’re a practitioner in the public or third sector working in Scotland, could you take some time to answer? (about 10min) — Thank you!

illustration with a person holding heart shaped balloons for the concept of motivation

Motivations for being a designer

A lot of the motivations we heard were not specific to service design (SD), but more about design in a wider sense.

The design process involves people in a creative and emotional sense. Practitioners enjoy it for themselves but also as a way to engage people. They want to make things better by enabling others and working along with them, to make a positive difference in people’s lives: improve the places we live in, make Scotland more equal, build a better world.

Collaboration is seen as meaningful, preferable and enjoyable. Practitioners see design as more than just a job or a practice, it’s a mindset, almost a lifestyle. They do (service) design because they believe it works.

Solving problems is a key part of the design work as well as a key motivation for doing it.

There seems to be a perpetual learning about people and their behavioural patterns. Practitioners are curious and enjoy the continuous learning embedded in design.

The skills to have

When we asked about the main skills to have, all the answers were around the way we can learn from people, engage them and take them on the journey with us.


Facilitation is seen as a fundamental skill to have and many were trying to learn to get better at it.

Facilitating work covers organising workshops with people and taking them through a new creative process. It also involves all the preparation and material used to create the right energy for the people taking part. Facilitating can also be ‘encouraging or prompting’ people, providing elements to show what’s wrong so people make it right.


Storytelling for engagement is essential and practitioners are trying to get better at it and use different ways: text, images, metaphors or even using a theatrical method (using a structure, dramatic arches in everything you do to engage people). Some mentioned the power of a story, a lived experience.

Other important skills

Others skills mentioned were around building relationships, listening, engaging with people who are not familiar with SD, learning about the organisation, understanding the power and politics you are working with and then compromise and get the balance right between your vision and what you can achieve practically

Curating information

Curating information was mentioned as well. SD is a field which forces you to have a wide set of skills and learn from a lot of sources. Many practitioners have to deal with a lot of information during work hours (people in various roles but also things like slack, emails, workshops, research) but we heard the same thing about having too many sources to learn from outside work, between social media, events and books.

Soft skills, using patterns as an approach, craft making

There were other skills mentioned like soft skills (collaborating, working in a team) using patterns as an approach but also craft making: quite a few practitioners have a background in textile or jewellery for example.

“Craft learning gives you an approach to looking at the world in a very different way”

How to improve and support

So how do we improve our practice?

Some of the things we are missing to support the SD practice mentioned by the practitioners:

  • Access to mentoring or coaching
  • Having a designer in a leadership position
  • Discussion about the emotional part of our work

“The set up of a project is a perfect time to open up and say what we are going to do together, it’s going to be hard, what can we put in place to support each other? How can we be safe?”

In terms of missing skills, various things were mentioned

  • Lack of awareness of our own gaps: “Everybody has gaps, it’s just about being aware of them”
  • A lack of questioning our own discipline “we just assume that SD is the right thing to do all the time”, we do not question what is “being asked of designers and researchers, what will happen to people after”.
  • Do not always track the impact of our design, and its implementation
  • Be curious and creative, learn from previous projects, and don’t be afraid to present your work at an early stage
  • Learn how to learn! the context of design keeps shifting
  • Build capacity in the organisation: skills up everyone, the SD language and facilitation, invest in your people instead of paying for consultant to do it for you
  • Take time to reflect, and for continuous improvement, learn from a mentor or someone you can bounce off, and at the same time, do encourage others, and let other people lift you up “I don’t shine if you don’t shine”
  • Being a mentor yourself can be a way to meet new people outside your normal circle and to bring learning from outside SD, broaden your knowledge and thinking, get out of your design world bubble

If you are looking for a mentor or think you could be one, this website could help you:

illustration with a person climbing up steps for the concept of learning

How to learn and what to learn

We mentioned earlier that continuous learning is part of the motivations for practitioners. They have a wide variety of ways to do this and often use more than one.

Some set themselves short term goals, one participant starts each project with the intention to do something different: tools to try out or a method.

Whatever way you learn, being able to apply this learning is really important:

“There is a risk that we can spend too much time doing things like formal training, without thinking how we are going to use that training or what [it] changes in our approach”

Ways of learning

Being part of a community [we will expand on this theme in a future post]

  • Peer learning, sharing, building your own community of learning
  • Learning by being engaged in a community or organisation

Other ways of learning we heard of:

  • Self learning (just some pointers and chase people up on the back of it)
  • Learning by trial and errors
  • Listening / watching people and learning from it
  • Learning on the role / by doing “ it’s difficult to know what I will need until I need it […] you should be working in a team where you learn those skills from other people
  • Search online, ask others
  • Attending events or even speaking at an event, going to design jams
  • Training and learning offered by the organisation you’re part of by other members of the organisation
  • Learning through writing as a reflective exercise
  • Learning through reading

Something a bit different “the community benefit clause

  • Internship: get a course and give back in work hours

Learning courses

One participant had experienced attending a service design course outside of formal education. The course they had taken felt like a big time commitment and a lot of the learning was actually not so much from the course itself but more from the reading around it. They also reflected that there was too much training offer for beginners and not enough for more advanced learning.

A growing demand for designers, do they need a master?

There is a growing demand for designers, a lot of people are arriving to SD through the same route: service design courses within universities after a couple of years.

Some think only experts can do SD and that you need years or experience and a master, but others think there is no need for a master and it’s more about ‘how you thing as a person’ and you can just ‘go and put yourself in a position of looking at how something got made and make it better’.

“Service design is not rocket science, it’s very instinctual stuff”

Design Education

Some think that design education is not good enough at the moment “we are expecting people to come out of SD courses within universities after a couple of years learning about design history and design as a process” to do the job.

One participant said that ‘in formal education, you’re taught how to stand up and give a presentation, you learn how to use your voice and how to use a powerpoint’. According to them, facilitation, which they viewed as a key skill, is not taught well enough.

“When students reach the workforce […] they need to learn how to behave within a wider team while it’s necessary for them to explain what their role is”

To improve students’ readiness to work, some suggested introducing learning about public sector hierarchies and structures and also to involve the industry to improve academia curriculum.

Even outside Service Design, there was a suggestion that design led approach to things should be part of the curriculum for all:

“That may not be your job, but it’s an approach about how you think about things”

Learning needs / wants

It was very varied:

  • Design leadership: How to make the transition to management / leader role
  • Using data better, AI (Artificial Intelligence) and how to work with people with these skills
  • Coding
  • System thinking approaches
  • Inclusivity, BLM (Black Lives Matter), social justice , responsibility, how social systems work

Some of these needs are illustrations of the lack of adequate training available in Design Education mentioned earlier:

  • Understanding policy making and how government work and how design fits in it
  • Communication: visual skills, achieving good outputs, really listening to people
  • Getting practical advice instead of templates, guidance, framing what we should be doing for each stage of work
  • Remote facilitation


A big part of the way practitioners learn is by sharing. We want to keep these summaries short so we will develop this as part of the Community theme later (Edit 12/05/21: Sharing is now available as a standalone Medium post)

Are you new to Service Design?

We have another post with resources which could interest you. Have a look!

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!

All illustrations by Angela F. Orviz — Special thanks to Vinishree Verma for reviewing the survey with us.



Practitioner stories

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