Service design practice in the Scottish public and third sectors

Practitioner stories
7 min readApr 8, 2021


illustrations of concepts used in the post — awareness, process, strategy, evidence and connections

Since our last post in February, we have continued to synthesise our data and have started to write up some of our insights. This is the first in a series of articles summarising what we are learning.

Contextualising insights

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

Although we speak of service design practice, we use the term service design very loosely.

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

What do practitioners do in public and third sector organisations in Scotland?

Although we did not ask interviewees directly what they did in their roles (see interview guide), a few activities stood out.

  • Building design awareness & capacity
  • Project and team strategy and direction
  • Bringing an evidence-based approach
  • Connecting things and people
  • Improving services, processes, and systems

How much time practitioners invest in these or other activities will most definitely depend on their role. The workshop activity below shows that these activities have different weights in practitioners’ daily work.

Screenshot of the mapping activity with lots of blue notes and some coloured one placed on the axes
Mapping activity part of the workshop we did — see the Google slides for it

Beyond roles, interviewees also appreciated differences between working as an external consultant and working from inside the organisation that we would love to explore further. For instance, being an insider seems to allow a more holistic overview of how research and insights feed into the wider strategy.

illustration of the concept of awareness with a loud speaker

Building design awareness and capacity

Service design practitioners in the public and third sector still constantly face the battle of advocating and proving service design and its value and on the other side demystifying, defining and clarifying it for an organisation or its people.

In many public and third sector spaces, design approaches are a new thing. So practitioners invest a fair amount of their time raising awareness, demonstrating its value, and building design capacity in organisations.

When design is not part of the organisational conversation, practitioners speak of taking every ‘opportunity to talk about service design’ and ‘bringing their service design skills’ to whatever role they are in and even when it is beyond what they ‘should do’.

But this lack of awareness means that they still feel the need to ‘demystify design’ and ‘push and prove’ its value for the organisation.

Once organisations are onboard, practitioners speak of defining the meaning of design for the organisation, giving design tasters, and building capacity.

They mentioned teaching user research, prototyping, the Double Diamond, doing service safaris, ideation…

One of the strategies mentioned was to send managers or key people at the top to service design training. But in order to make design available and be able to work with people in the organisation, practitioners need to ‘upskill and lift the bar across [the organisation]’. They need to reach a point where ‘everyone knows the language, why we are doing things, and why it is beneficial in the long run’.

illustration of the concept of strategy with 3 people in front of a whiteboard

Project and team strategy and direction

Service designer practitioners play an important role when setting up a new project or aligning projects including developing a shared vision, setting a strategy, and coaching the team.

Practitioners also drive project and team strategy. They have the ‘knowledge of how to scope out and set up a project in an inclusive and accessible way, how to research and analyse things, how to use different methods’… This allows them greater influence to encourage prototyping, make data and insights more open throughout the process, or feed ‘insights to be taken into account in various streams of work.

Furthermore, they facilitate and coach their teams. They make sure that they ‘get alignment within the project team’ to build a shared vision, and set up appropriate ways for the team to communicate.

They feel they coach, manage, and support their teams in a ‘refreshing, different way of thinking’. One that builds on ‘listening and learning’ and ‘empathy’.

illustration of the concept of evidence with a magnifier looking at someone speaking

Bringing an evidence-based approach

Some of the practitioners we interviewed were in ‘research heavy’ roles, and thus their work focused on doing user research, and presenting evidence back to colleagues and decision-makers inside and outside their organisations.

However, discovery is central to service design approaches, and practitioners in design roles however, when called into a new project, felt the need to shift the procurers’ perception of design from a ‘production task’ to a discovery process. While the initial brief may ask them to ‘design something that does this’, they come back with questions about ‘the problem’. They want to provide ‘a more impactful, long-lasting solution’, which requires ‘discovery, researching the problem, and involving people before you even touch the production side of it’.

Service design practitioners are heavily involved in research to ensure approach is based on evidence.

Public and third sector teams may have ‘never seen themselves as someone who provided a service’, even if they do ‘provide face to face and digital services’. They lack ‘the user experience perspective [and] the evidence that backs-up the existence of the service’ or their decisions. Instead, they have a back-to-front approach, where they know ‘what they do and why it’s good’

illustration of the concept of connection with a little network

Connecting things and people

Practitioners also see as part of their roles ‘to connect the dots between different services, departments and organisations’; as well as integrating design approaches with other methodologies such as Scrum and Lean.

They also found ‘relationship building’ important in their role, driven by their soft skills, openness, and willingness to share. The relationship building in the public sector is different due to the organisational structure, and the willingness to share as a (service) designer adds value to it.

There is this other side of relationship building, because it‘s quite important. [This public sector organisation] has such a different culture of leadership to any other organisation I‘ve ever been in or worked with. Relationship building and those skills from our sphere work, has been extremely useful like the openness, the willingness to share everything that we can.

Facilitation of people and workshops, internally and externally, was a key element of day to day work for many practitioners. They facilitate collaborations for the purposes of design research, collective activity, sense making…

illustration of the concept of processes with 2 little gears and an arrow around them

Improving services, processes, and systems

Ultimately, service design methods seek to improve outputs, experiences, ways of working, services, processes, and systems.

Practitioners see huge potential for simplifying services and having systemic impact by improving everyday problems and interactions that occur across services. Efforts towards improving the system is possible by working within the system, which allows one to work more closely with users, staff, and stakeholders.

Practitioners also seek to influence and change some of the practices and ways of working in the public and third sectors to be more in alignment with service design approaches.

Some of this work is not as ‘sexy’ or tangible as practitioners would like. Integrating services may boil down to ‘creating an algorithm’, which success cannot be shown in images but in numbers.

Conclusion: what is missing?

This is far from being a comprehensive list of the activities carried out in a service design approach. But we believe that it can be useful for people new to the field to see what things practitioners do beyond designing services; such as raising design awareness or building relationships.

As we continue analysing practitioners’ contributions and skills, we hope to get a richer picture. But we would love to hear from you what is missing or what surprises you.

How can you contribute?

  • You can comment here in Medium, or in the shared Google Doc we are using to write up these insights.
  • We might be posting concrete questions on Twitter, so you can follow us there too.
  • You can join our team and contribute to interpreting and writing up our research. Get in touch with Angela or email us on

A special thank you to Vinishree Verma, Carolina Moyano, and Nicola Dobiecka for joining the team!

All illustrations by Angela F. Orviz



Practitioner stories

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