Service design contributions in public and third sectors in Scotland

illustration adding all the others illustrations in this post for the concept of: creativity, collaboration and service design perspective

This is the third article of our series summarising what we are learning from our research project . You can read the last one here.

Practitioners feel they primarily contribute by:

  • fostering citizen/user participation and collaboration
  • bringing in an empathic and evidence-based approach
  • saving money through better services and practices

Interviewees emphasised three ways in which they make these contributions:

  • bringing a service design perspective
  • enabling collaborations
  • engaging people creatively
illustration of service design perspective with a person with glasses and the words ‘service’ ‘design’ on them
illustration of service design perspective with a person with glasses and the words ‘service’ ‘design’ on them

Bringing a service design perspective includes

  • Getting findings heard: Design research outputs; such as user journeys, blueprints, recommendations, or prototypes; contribute to ‘making change happen, and provoking conversations at senior management level’
  • Building empathy: Design has an emphasis on empathy and ‘being in someone else’s shoes’ to understand different experiences of services. Compared to other approaches such as lean, practitioners see service design as being more accessible, more customer-focused, and more exciting. Sometimes instead of contributing by bringing in the user perspective, the practitioner first needs to focus on getting buy-in to use these approaches. As an interviewee noted that, ‘some people [in the public and third sectors] think it is nonsense’
  • ‘Helping people recognise that they actually run services’: A participant emphasised the importance of ‘helping people recognise that they actually run services. ‘A lot of public bodies, receive money and annual policy letters and you have to turn them into stuff, but there is a whole lot of businesses with no one even thinking that they are designing a service’. ‘Seeing the world in a service way’ brings value to organisations by making those services tangible, so the people working there can ‘start to really see themselves as service providers’. It would be interesting to explore further how this shift in self-perception impacts the people running those services
  • Saving time and money: ‘Doing things the service design way saves time and money by making services more efficient’. The ’core purpose’ is to address ‘citizen needs’, while doing it in a way that ‘also benefits the [organisation] financially or in other ways’
  • Building data-driven organisations: Design’s evidence-based and iterative approach is about helping organisations to implement a ‘test and learn approach on an ongoing basis’ and ‘make decisions based on what you are learning’ through quantitative and qualitative data
illustration of the concept “collaboration” with people making a jigsaw together around a table
illustration of the concept “collaboration” with people making a jigsaw together around a table

Enabling Collaborations

Service design practitioners play an important role in enabling collaborations:

“Things don’t just happen in isolation [and,] often, the service designer is that link [or] focal point’ for different people and perspectives to ‘come together around essential points.”

Interviewees noted that public and third sector organisations have ‘to address complex, wicked problems’ where ‘working in partnership is key’, and having the ability to facilitate collaborations becomes essential.

“Service design practitioners have to become ‘the glue between the different partners and agencies’, design ‘what these relationships look like, and how [people] thrive and communicate with each other.”

Service design approaches ‘give people an opportunity to stop and think’ and ‘creates the space to challenge’ how they currently work. But embedding these reflexive and collaborative practices in organisations in a sustainable way remains really difficult.

A key part of practitioners’ work is ‘to develop trust’, and they shared some lessons with us:

  1. Be ‘very open’
  2. Invite people in
  3. Don’t focus on outputs, people are more ‘receptive’ when they can engage in the process and the work becomes ‘a collective priority’

But they do not only bring their skills for building relationships and collaborations.Their tools and processes allow them to gain a holistic understanding of how different elements interconnect.

“Service design has the amazing capacity to coordinate all the layers in a service: the [user] experience, staff workflows, safety, modelling of data, technology…”

illustration of the concept “creative” with a bulb with stars in it and a twirl around it
illustration of the concept “creative” with a bulb with stars in it and a twirl around it

Creative Engagement

[In public and third sector contexts,] there is a real flip between logical, evidence-based, robust thinking and analysis’ on the one hand, and the ‘desire for this creative spark’ on the other. And normally, that creative spark falls under the service designer.

At the core of these contributions and where many practitioners see ‘the difference that service design makes if it’s done well [is that] it engages people creatively.’ An interviewee contrasted their work with ‘Town Hall consultations, where you just sit or look at boards [because] they don’t want you to think; they are just ticking the boxes. Service design takes us way beyond that’.

By ‘re-centering everything around the user’, practitioners help organisations ‘understand the needs and aspirations of the people they serve’. A core part of this work is ‘figuring out different ways of engaging [people] creatively’.

The openness and creative engagement generated by service design ‘will mean stronger engagement’. The fact that designers take the time to do a great amount of user research and try to design things that work for’ people, not only ‘surprises’ some people but can get them ‘quite enthusiastic’. Practitioners argue that the involvement of users, clients, and other stakeholders fosters empathy, ownership, and passion.

Some participants see design ‘as a means to fundamentally shift democracy’. Its ‘contribution to the civic sphere is that it engages people’ in shaping the world around them, offering ‘a practical approach to participative democracy’.

Contextualising Insights

These insights come from 15 remote interviews and a two-hour online workshop with design practitioners. 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!

All illustrations by Angela F. Orviz

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