A Semi-Structured Approach

We often speak of semi-structured interviews within Service Design. An approach that requires a level of planning certain themes or questions that the interviewer would like to cover within the session, whilst still allowing for flexibility in terms of order, phrasing, or even relevant tangents. I find it is most often the most effective way to engage with participants. It ensures that you’re prepared and have considered the purpose and goals of the interview, but it also leaves room for the conversation to follow a path that you may not have considered and unearth new insights. Additionally, the discussion can be more natural and informal, which can help support both to feel more comfortable contributing and learning from one another.

Fundamentally, semi-structured is a concept that can be applied to all areas of a Service Design process. It’s a field that requires continuous doing, reflecting, adjusting, and repeating. Iterative was hardly part of my vocabulary before I began working in this area. It’s never as linear or straightforward that any of the frameworks that we reference.

But what does that mean in practice? How do we plan for the unknown? We can’t always know in advance all the factors that will impact our process. Who should and can be involved? How many times will we need to adjust something? How long will we need? What resources will be required? We can even go into a new project not knowing what the actual challenge that we’re trying to address will be. This is when the semi-structured approach must exist within all phases of our work. We need to plan ahead, but of that plan must include the flexibility to change.

For instance, I’m currently preparing for a series of workshops with a range of partners. This all began with a rough concept of topic to address and timeframe to work within. (Spoiler alert: both of these ended up changing anyway) However, it also included a whole host of unknowns, such as how many people or even who we would be collaborating with. We had to start somewhere. We’ve now reached the stage where we’ve got participants expressing interest and we need to properly launch the project so that they can understand the project purpose and what their involvement would require. How can we offer a clear and attractive understanding of such an exploratory and iterative project? Ultimately, this came down to three areas:

  1. Defining core goals
  2. Creating flexible frameworks
  3. Setting expectations


Defining Goals

No matter what form this project ultimately takes, there are certain core things that we need achieve. These exist in a number of areas, including funding requirements, strategic project goals, and partner benefits. As long as we maintain a strong, shared understanding of what our goals are throughout the course of the project, we can adapt our ways of working in response to what best suits our needs.

Creating Flexible Frameworks

In order to collaborate with our partners in this project, we need to provide them with a realistic expectation of their time and involvement. In this instance, we’ve divided the work required into flexible stages – ones that can be done altogether or separately depending on each partner’s capacity. This could result in a full day’s workshop or mini versions across a series of weeks. We’ve also identified which steps are optional, adding to the process but not essential to it’s success.

Image of 2 jigsaw pieces alongside process expectations - iterative, responsive, collaborative, exploratory, building longevity.

Setting Expectations

The final element involves bringing our partners on board with a service design mindset. By making it clear from the offset that this is an exploratory process with room to evolve, we can all approach the work with shared intentions. It allows people to be more open to experimentation and helps show how adjustments from the original plan can be beneficial.

There’s no one way to semi-structure any kind of engagement. But I’ve found these elements of identifying and maintaining a clear purpose, offering options and planned adjustments where possible, and outlying clear expectations from the start a good approach.

Days in the Life: PerthCAB


I wasn’t there, but at daily catch-up I hear that yesterday was difficult. Inboxes filled more than usual. Endless calls – a record amount of voicemails to work through. I know PerthCAB pride themselves on their callback speed. Quite a few clients dropped-in yesterday in crisis as well. And one that refused to leave, demanding they be prioritised above all the rest. It’s not the first time they’ve had to deal with accusations and aggressions. People are still reeling a bit from it all. There’s asks and offers of support where possible. The team expresses sympathy and lets out frustrations in brief bursts, and then they get right back to it.

In a meeting with our project funders we mention it, the increasing demand. Bureaus across Scotland are experiencing the same thing. We discuss how this may impact the project. The importance of working with bureaus to fit into their capacity. The hope that by creating space for the KTP, we free up space long-term in team member’s schedules. It’s valuable, getting to be embedded at bureau level. I have the opportunity to see this day-to-day and catch those little moments that make up the complexity of service that CABs provide. And it is complex, at every level. From the range of advice given, to the makeup of the bureaus themselves, to the structure of Citizen’s Advice Scotland (CAS) and the various Citizen’s Advice Bureaus (CABs). Our discussions cover client demand, network communication, even keeping the roof from leaking in this weather. I have hope that this project will help begin to introduce preventative ways of addressing issues as opposed to reactive ones. We’re talking about the long term with our funders. What may be happening in the next few years. Its exciting and daunting all at once.

Digital Post-it notes following the flow of conversation with PerthCAB advisors
Digital Post-it notes following the flow of conversation with PerthCAB advisors

We catch a benefits advisor whose client hasn’t shown for his appointment. He’s got some spare time now and is willing to let me chat with him to learn more about his role. I’m in one of their interview rooms for the first time. Where clients come to receive confidential support. Although PerthCAB are no longer doing daily drop-ins outside of crisis, they continue their in-person appointments as needed. It’s a small space and you can see consideration has gone into its set up. Built for purpose. A neutral territory. I imagine what it might feel like coming into this space, seeking my own support with the bureau. I’ve been shadowing advisors over the last few weeks, taking a semi-structured approach. This allows the advisor to guide the conversation and observation in a way that suits them whilst ensuring that I’m still able to gather the information I need. What does their day to day look like? What processes are they following? What’s working well? What isn’t? What would they like to see in the future? This time the chat flows quite naturally, I almost don’t need to ask him any questions. He’s got a lot to share and that works well for me. We go through his role and bit by bit it pieces together for me. The remit he covers. The flow of his work. His attitude towards the job. The challenges he faces and the challenges his clients face. His expertise and knowledge seem second nature. He’s aware of his place in supporting others and mindful of not getting too phased by factors outwith his control.

I meet with the business development team. We’re going through our tasks, reviewing what’s been done and what we have yet to get to. We quickly discover our project management software has introduced a new winter feature – wee animations play as you tick a task off your to-do list. We get momentarily sidetracked trying to get the animation with a winter fox that someone saw earlier. We go through our various boards – partners and stakeholder relations, external meetings and events, project monitoring and management. It’s a good way to stay up to speed on where everyone is. I update them on some of my own tasks and we’re able to define some next steps for the KTP.


It’s cold today and very busy. Wednesday’s catch-ups are about wellbeing. Recent weeks have been a chance to talk about getting into the holiday spirit, managing the winter darkness, or a very detailed chat about slippers – their design, how they reflect on someone’s personality, and, crucially, whether or not you should be washing them. Today we’re taking a chance to moan. I can already tell how necessary it is in this kind of work. To be able to get things off your chest when appropriate and possible. We keep things fairly lighthearted today. Why are people walking along the dark country roads dressed in all black?

I’m off to help brainstorm some workshop ideas. They’re exploring referrals and a new system that could allow clients to get more holistic support between different partner organisations in the third and public sectors. They’re hoping to engage with people early next year to more clearly determine what this could look like. We discuss what stage they’re at and I get an overview of what the system may look like. I try to break ideas down into more detailed goals. What exactly are you looking to get out of this workshop? What questions need answered? We explore what methods might be most effective at gathering insight. I try to encourage incorporating as much as activity as possible. Get participants out of the discussion space, out of their chairs, out of the normal way of working. Have them thinking laterally and working collaboratively. I love this kind of work – dissecting our thoughts into more defined objectives and bouncing ideas of one another to conceptualise the most engaging and insightful approach.

PerthCAB research and legal handbooks
PerthCAB research and legal handbooks

I get back online to meet with a Help to Claim advisor. She talks me through her process. The way she sets up for the day. The steps she has to take. The areas she makes sure to check. A large area of her work involves migrating clients from legacy benefits to Universal Credit. They always make sure to prioritise the clients, ensuring that they stick with the benefits that will help them the most. She worries that those with language barriers aren’t always getting in touch. Clients aren’t always aware that translators can be added into the call and she doesn’t want that to be a obstacle to them accessing support. Her structure differs to some of her team members, as the Help to Claim service works on a national level. They’ve managed to maintain a good support network despite the remote working across the bureaus. There’s multiple internal chats, ones for sharing knowledge and ones to bond, regular meetings, and frequent training. She feels connected and supported by her team.

After lunch I’m into another meeting. It’s to discuss the referral system we’d considered earlier, this time with people from the local authority and those running the system itself. Although everyone’s coming at this from slightly different requirements and restrictions, they’re all in the room with the same goal – to join up organisations through external referrals so that members of the public have better, holistic support. The system seems to be adaptable and hopefully they can find ways to tailor it to the needs within Perth and Kinross. It’ll then become a matter of determining what those needs are. Challenging within the varying structures and processes of organisations throughout the area.

It’s nearing the end of the day and we’re discussing an obstacle the bureau is facing that they’re hoping can become the focus of the mini project we’ll be tackling within the KTP, gathering client feedback. The methods they’ve been using to collect insights from the clients thus far haven’t suited their goals and they’re interested in finding an effective method to determine whether or not they’re meeting public need. It’s difficult to find an approach that can capture a rich and honest picture of people’s experiences whilst not demanding too much of a person’s time and demotivating them to participate. They’re not the only bureau facing this challenge either. Different CABs may have different questions they’re hoping to answer and ways that they’re engaging with clients. It’s a complex challenge to tackle.


Today I’m with the core team at PerthCAB. After daily catch-up we sit down together with cups of tea as they explain their work to me. There’s a lot covered in their remit – Frontline calls and emails, generalist advice, internal and external referrals, coordinating and supporting volunteers, crisis assessment, case designation, training and client triage. As they say, they’re there to fill in the gaps. They’re required to be flexible, always. No two days look the same. The landscape is ever changing, with endless cases coming in and no way of knowing what the area of support will be required in advance. Not to mention balancing that with different staff and volunteer schedules and capacity. Their role requires endless judgement calls. Weighing up client need with staff and volunteer capacity. Continually re-prioritising, often under the pressure of time and distress.

Notes from my discussion with the Core team at PerthCAB
Notes from my discussion with the Core team at PerthCAB

It’s hard to define how it all works. The balance of tasks seems insurmountable in some ways and yet they’re usually clearing their inbox and responding to calls and voicemail on the same day they came in. I compare it to something of an ‘X-factor’ – that indescribable quality that underpins their ability to balance and deliver their core service. It’s not something they’re quite able to articulate either. It takes time and experience, 1-2 years to really get there. It can’t really be understood without doing the process. We decide it’s time for me to start observing.

We start with a voicemail. Check to see if they’re an existing client or new to the bureau. Did they give us permission to call? To leave a voicemail? Without explicit permission they can’t, to ensure client safety. We call them back, explain who we are, ask how we can help. It could be anything on the frontline – debt, relationship advice, housing, energy issues, immigration, benefits and more. They have to ready to respond no matter the topic. If it’s generalist advice, that lies with their team, otherwise it’ll be a referral onto a specialist advisor. Either way, they’ll need to gather information. Start a new case file if needed. There’s not time to log it extensively whilst mid-call. So they jot down notes while they speak. While they look up references to ensure they’re providing the accurate advice. While they check local organisations to confirm opening hours. While the office is filled with the hubbub of other calls, clients, and conversations. It’s an intricate, fast paced dance and I’m struggling to keep up even as an observer.

At the end of the call, it’s time to record everything on CASTLE, Citizen’s Advice’s case management system. Everything is meticulously logged. All advice offered, even if the client choses not to go with it. All sources evidencing where the advice came from. Even attempts to contact, where the client didn’t pick up the phone are accounted. This attention to detail is imperative to the delivery of CAS’s service. It ensures that any advisor can be in contact with a client and quickly and easily understand the context and history of a case. Clients can have a more seamless experience and won’t be required to repeat their story each time they get support. It’s also an opportunity for CAS to gather anonymous data to help inform social policy and advocate for change.

Between returning calls, there’s emails to reply to, volunteers to support, referrals to address, and the occasional client in crisis dropping by the office. There’s always someone offering a cup of tea or a biscuit. People take little moments to breathe and talk. It’s quite a sight to witness, the frontline work. There’s a clear level of trust and camaraderie amongst the PerthCAB team members. It allows them to work to one another’s strengths and support one another well. The morale improves at the bureau and in turn, the services they provide do as well. These last few days have only been a small capture of the bureau, but getting to shadow PerthCAB for a week has been invaluable for building up my understanding of the ways of working and dynamic of the team.

Partnerships: Idealism, Reality and Balance

As part of PerthCAB’s Cultivating Collaboration and Change Conference,  I had the chance to be part of a workshop about Effective Partnerships, which involved an exercise where we were asked to discuss and document three things around our experiences in partnerships:

  1. What works well?
  2. What are the challenges?
  3. What ways have you managed to overcome them?



My table reflected upon the various partnerships they’d experienced. Although there were clearly certain functional components to a partnership that would either help or hinder its success, the focus quickly became more about the feelings that surrounded their structure, rather than the structure itself. Our ‘Positives’ list reflected the idealism around a partnership – the reason they get created in the first place and the potential that they have to offer. Whereas our ‘Negatives’ list encompassed the harsher reality of obstacles and challenges that are often faced, particularly with partnerships operating outside of the ‘day to day’ responsibilities of a job. These are two sides of the same coin, and often the actual circumstances aren’t changeable. However, we then found that our ‘Overcoming’ list was representative of behavioural or perceptive shifts. Not necessarily adjusting the circumstances themselves, but rather the way that you move through them.

As someone who’s entire role revolves around a partnership, I found this workshop invaluable. I recognised that I’m still in the perspective and experience of a fresh start. Yet to face inevitable obstacles, and filled with the potential of bringing expertise and experience together to explore complex issues. Throughout this project, it will be important for me to find balance in between the two, and continual assess and adapt my own and my collaborators ways of working in order to do so.

Design Indifference – David Chatting

This afternoon, Design Informatics hosted David Chatting of Open Lab, to provide a talk about Design Indifference – or rather, how we often design with indifference as an intention. He began by bringing us in through the case of Victorian Country Houses, which were often used as test beds for technological innovations of the time. Developments like the first domestic use of the lightbulb, internal telephone network, or the mechanical and later electrical bell ringing system were showcased to visitors in a demonstration of wealth, influence, and learning. However, David highlighted that as much as these innovations were shown off to the public, their design was inherently about controlling the visibility of the labour happening within these homes. All created to enhance the process of convenience without illuminating the the myriad of staff required to keep the homes running.

Sketch of how many components of a service are kept hidden to the average person

Over time, this intention remained consistent with the concept of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ only developing further as services were moved outside of the home. With utilities like gas, water, and electric being managed externally, people no longer needed to worry about where, when, or how these services were being carried out. Often, these actions have become a simple push of a button in order for a desired outcome to appear from nowhere.

There are many reasons why products and services are designed this way, in particular for ease and convenience for the person using them. Yet there can be consequences, intentional or not, to removing people so completely from the process. As David shows, it can lead to indifference – around the labour, energy, time, cost, ethics, procedures, and people required to provide it. This indifference can and often does lead to many issues, such as lack of consumer autonomy or worker exploitation. David has been exploring different ways of responding to these hidden processes, such as finding ways to visualise normally hidden data or revealing nearby invisible technology. These speculative objects have the potential to foster a healthier relationship with the complexity of a product or service and bring more awareness to the quiet labour that surrounds us daily.

David’s point was not that all aspects of any product or service should be disclosed, rather that certain points in the process could be made more transparent. I think that this is where Service Design methods come into the picture – involving people through the conception, research, design, development, and eventual creation of an outcome. By taking these approaches, it can ensure that people are invested and aware of the requirements of delivering those services and products, and have the ability to shape them. We often talk about ensuring that our designs meet people’s needs, but remaining person-centred goes beyond that. It prevents that indifference and allows them to be personally motivated and involved in the creation of something that, ideally, is made to suit them. That can be a powerful thing.

PerthCAB Away Day

I’m joining this KTP with the Perth Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) as my anchor bureau and had the good fortune of having my first week in post line up with their annual away day. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet the full team and gain an overview of how the bureau operates. Since Covid, PerthCAB have maintained a mostly remote service, retaining their drop-in appointments for crisis clients only. This has benefitted their clients by enabling them to support more people with a faster response as well as their staff by allowing them more flexible working patterns. It’s also required them to rethink their organisation structure, with careful consideration to the way they construct their teams, how they maintain work morale and culture, and what systems they put in place to ensure that clients have a consistent and beneficial experience when engaging with them.

The Away Day is one such measure that they’ve put in place to support this. As one of the larger bureaus in Scotland, PerthCAB have a range of teams within their organisation, which we broke out into throughout the day. The twin goals of Away Day were fostering their team culture and creating space to reflect upon strengths, challenges, goals, and opportunities throughout the bureau. I was following the Business and Development team, which allowed for me to explore some of these themes on a broader level. I admired the approach that they took for the event, choosing to incorporate more creative activities instead of taking a more straightforward question and answer structure. For instance, instead of simply asking about everyone to list their goals, they framed it as writing a letter to yourself from the future about what you’d achieved in the last few years. I found that this teased out the necessary insights in a more natural way and allowed for everyone to think more laterally about their work. To me, it felt as if they were able to strike the right balance of space for identifying business needs and strategy as well as opportunities to connect and develop their team dynamics.

As each CAB is an independent organisation, they’ll each have their own unique structure and processes. I’m excited to learn more about how each bureau responds to their local needs and organisational resources – to learn how and why they work in certain ways, the issues they face, and how they overcome those challenges.

Tech for Good Scotland – Oct ’23

This morning I attended the October meet up of Tech for Good Scotland, hosted by Third Sector Lab. It’s an event I regularly enjoy attending – and not just for the pain au chocolat they provide. I’ve always found a really wonderful atmosphere amongst the attendees, one filled with driven, thoughtful, and openminded people.

Today’s event started with Citizen’s Advice Scotland’s (CAS) own Head of Tech and Digital Fraser Ross speaking about the transformative potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the importance of transparency and co-creation when developing ethical AI outcomes. Fraser highlighted a few of AI projects that CAS had undertaken in recent years, including ones that supported routing people to the correct bureau, guiding them through the CAS website, and helping to prioritise need within their Extra Help Unit. All of these initiatives have never been created to replace people, rather to increase their own capacity at work by aiding their tasks.

There is often an understandable fear around this, which CAS has encountered themselves. AI is an incredibly powerful tool, one that can be used to help or harm and is not something that should be implemented without careful consideration. That’s why its affirming to hear that CAS are focused on using it as an assist to a human role as opposed to a substitute. As well, they’ve recognised the need to include their own team members in the co-design process, both to combat the fear of the unknown and to ensure that they’re meeting bureau needs.

Beyond this, Fraser spoke about the concerns around AI ethics and responsible use. They’ve needed to be cautious around bias, data quality, security, privacy, reputation, and transparency of decision making. They’ve ensured that data protection team members have been involved throughout their processes and constantly review their data protection measures to support this. However, he acknowledged that this is still a work in progress and they’re continuing to work towards a governance process and AI policy. Furthermore, Fraser stated that the third and public sectors have a responsibility to lead the way in AI ethics.

I find it affirming to see that CAS have thoughtful and good intentions in the work that they’re undertaking, and that they’re able to acknowledge that they’re still needing to grow and learn throughout their work with AI. Having worked collaboratively to get people onboard with the developments and ensure that their outcome could properly meet the needs of the service, they’ve already began implementing service design processes and mindsets and continued centring people in their endeavours. I hope that continuing this practice through the KTP project will further create space for reflection and development within the organisation and its members.

We then heard Reema Vadoliya from People of Data speak about inclusive data practices and how we can reframe and improve upon our data culture to better support our organisational goals and the people using our services. Reema emphasised that data, like AI, holds a lot of power. It has the potential to provide insight, opportunity, storytelling, and profit. However, it can also produce the opposite effect – increasing bias, misrepresenting needs, creating ‘tick box’ scenarios, and excluding peoples. Collecting people’s data can quickly become an unethical practice, particularly when they are left with a lack of choice or opportunity to change or update their information.

At People of Data, Reema has created a 6 step playbook to support people to improve their data practices:

  1. Audit
  2. Examine
  3. Imagine
  4. Plan
  5. Deliver
  6. Evaluate


With shared traits to a human-centred process, the intention of this process is to get people to reflect upon why they collect data, challenge their policies, and think laterally in order to improve. I found this mindset helps reframe what data is and reminds us to think very holistically about how it can positively or negatively be impacting our organisations and subsequent services.

Overall, I found this Tech for Good event to be another thought-provoking space, allowing everyone to step back out into the big picture of their own projects through the case studies of our two speakers. I hope to continue to find spaces and opportunities to learn from others ways of working and feed that back into my own work.


Welcome to the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP)

So what is it that you’re doing?

I’ve found this to be a trickier question to answer than I would like. The most succinct explanation I can come up with is this:

I’m working as a Service Designer to lead a UKRI funded project that transfers knowledge from Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) to Citizen’s Advice Scotland (CAS), with the aim of creating a culture of continuous learning and development through the introduction of Service Design methods and the eventual development of a ‘handbook’ for Citizen’s Advice Bureaus (CABs) to use throughout Scotland.

Not exactly clear.

Nor does this fully cover the scope, intention, or complexity of this project. Part of the challenge in summarising this project, is that it’s designed to evolve over time, as part of a iterative, co-design process. This KTP is more about process and mindset – starting by building up a strong understanding and practice of reflection upon the various CABs’ ways of working, structures, challenges, and needs. From there, I’ll be collaborating with people across different CABs to begin to explore what methods and tools can be created or adapted to support continuous learning and development of the Citizen’s Advice services. All this will be towards the co-designing of a bespoke handbook that can provide framework and guidance for different people at CAS to reference and utilise in order to continue to improve and evolve the organisation.

Although I may be new to this role, this project has been forming for a number of years now. Citizen’s Advice Scotland and the 59 Bureaus that make up its membership are an indispensable resource in Scotland, providing vital information to people, often in times of crisis, and advocating for policy change and human rights. They’ve been supporting the public for over 80 years and have had to evolve with need over the years, in particular during the recent Covid-19 pandemic. As part of that continual development, they’ve been exploring more collaborative ways of working – becoming involved in multiple CivTech challenges. As well as produce some innovative technical solutions, these CivTech processes exemplified the benefit of dynamic, interdisciplinary teamwork and the potential of human centred design processes. This has been a significant part of the journey that has led to this UKRI funded Knowledge Transfer Partnership, between Edinburgh College of Art and Citizen’s Advice Scotland.

It’s an exciting opportunity to be able to bring the perspective of academic theory and methodology into the real world application of such a diverse and important service as Citizen’s Advice. I don’t think this project will be without its challenges, but I think it has a huge amount of potential to be the starting point of a cultural shift that can support the organisations’ continual development towards serving the Scottish public.