Career Stories

Hannah Rooney

Service Design Lead Context Studio

Service Designer

What type of formal education or training did you pursue and how has it influenced your career?

My first degree was in social justice; I didn’t even know what service design was back then! I spent ten years learning about design informally, but it wasn’t until I quit my job to dedicate a year to completing a full-time master’s in Interaction Design from NCAD that I really felt like I was on the right path. My year at NCAD was the best year of my life, and, in full transparency, I didn’t want it to end! It was very heavily project-based, and we learned practical skills to complement our evolving understanding of the design process. The exposure I received throughout that year to all aspects of design, most of which were new to me, and the opportunity to experiment in a risk-free environment, opened up my creative practice in ways I didn’t think were possible at that stage in my career. I learned so much from the other participants in the class, who came from various professional and cultural backgrounds, and we received incredible guidance and inspiration from fantastic lecturers, who were more like mentors throughout the year. I got to partake in real-world projects with Dublin City Council and the Mater Hospital, which provided numerous practical examples of project scenarios to draw upon in interviews. Although it was a big decision and a sacrifice in some ways to return to formal education, I wouldn’t be where I am without it!

How does the reality of your career differ from your expectations?

I didn’t really imagine I’d be having this much fun in a job. I adored my college experience, constantly brainstorming, white boarding, ideating, and prototyping. I thought that in the “real world,” there would be a lot less of that. I was so wrong! We spend so much time at the studio in the “creative zone,” even with more traditional industries that we work with. Our clients are very open to being creative and sharing ideas, and our approach is really refreshing for people in the public sector. There’s a huge wave of creativity and a willingness to solve problems creatively in the public sector, especially since the design principles for government were launched last year. That excitement and energy for design have definitely exceeded my expectations!

How has your career evolved over the years – did you start in another discipline before transitioning to your current field?

I actually spent almost ten years in the tech industry before working in design, starting in client management. Through working closely with clients, I became really interested in the process by which our product direction evolved to further meet the needs of customers and make them more successful. I was unrelentingly curious about our customers and was incredibly passionate about democratising this understanding of our customers throughout our whole organisation. I started to run projects outside of my day-to-day role to support this process; these, in hindsight, were really research projects!

I organised our customer feedback process so that we elicited more feedback from those expert users at scale, and championed insights internally so that they would be prioritised and absorbed into the product roadmap. I shared customer stories and snippets in communications campaigns internally and became known as a real customer champion.

I then moved into a full-time research role, where I was mentored and trained in formal research techniques. Still curious to learn more, I decided to return to full-time education to study design, and when I graduated, I joined Context Studio, where I’m now working on a strategic service design project for the public sector!

It’s been a career jungle gym rather than a career ladder as such, but I’ve always followed my nose, been very intentional and reflective, and have always made decisions that allow me to do more of what lights me up in a role, and shed anything that wasn’t as meaningful for me.

Were there any pivotal moments, insights or decisions that significantly impacted your career path?

All of my pivotal career moments are in some way related to asking someone to meet for a coffee. My most important reach-out was to a woman who worked in the research team when I was just starting at Intercom as a customer success manager. I was nowhere near being in design at that point, but I had heard she had worked as a service designer in the past, and I wanted to learn more as I was always curious about design. That led to a great friendship, and over the coming years through book recommendations, career chats, and giving me opportunities to help out on internal research projects, Lynsey supported me in moving over to the research team! I learned so much from her over the years and am so glad I reached out for that coffee, as it’s the reason I’m working in the field I’m in today.

What three skills do you believe are crucial to succeeding in this career?

Active Listening:
The most important skill that I’ve always continued to develop is active listening. It’s the number one most important skill in design, in my opinion, and the best way to develop it is to practice and to learn from others in how they listen.

Ask Great Questions:
However, listening is only useful if the right question has been asked. Being able to ask great probing questions to get a deeper understanding of a situation, a person, a context, will always elevate the project. I have found that spending a lot of energy figuring out the right question to ask can be almost as important as what you do with the answers, and practice makes perfect.

Foster Curiosity:
Thirdly, I believe that working on your own curiosity is a skill that can be developed and is absolutely essential for being a good designer. It’s often an innate trait, but I believe it has the potential to be fostered, or forgotten, depending on the level of intention that you give it. Training yourself to be curious by dedicating time to reflecting on things that you see, visiting museums that you wouldn’t usually go to, reading books that you wouldn’t be inclined to pick up, or speaking with people passionate about things that you know nothing about, is a great way to develop your curiosity. Being open to a world outside your own, especially through others’ experiences, is a game-changer.

How have you continued to develop your skills throughout your career?

I am very conscious of the importance of self-reflection, and a habit that I have been practicing for the past few years is to give myself quarterly reviews. I dedicate a few hours every few months to mapping out where I’m at, and I always focus part of that session on skill mapping. I plot the skills required for my ideal role and rate myself out of 10 on those skills, not being afraid to be frank with areas that I need to develop. Those areas that appear lower on the scale, I make a plan for. Usually, the plan will include reaching out to someone with expertise in those skills, putting myself up for opportunities that require those skills, and mapping out a learning plan for some online or in-person formal education around those skills, such as online courses or weekend workshops.

What are some of the highlights or most satisfying moments of your career so far?

A massive career highlight for me has been using design to work on a community decarbonisation project with the help of a Creative Ireland fund. I’ve always been really passionate about climate action, and being able to use my design skills to work towards community mobilisation for climate action has been a total dream come true! It’s helping massively with my own climate anxiety as I can see the potential for co-design and community engagement to help make big strides in reducing our carbon footprint and living more sustainably, so it’s a really exciting space and a pleasure to work on.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in your field?

As my boss always says, “Eat the world with your eyes.” Your portfolio is not just your college or career projects; think of your whole life as your portfolio. I have chosen an area of design that I am really passionate about, and I am an avid reader around those topics in my spare time. I also volunteer in advocacy groups for issues that I care about, such as housing, and use my designer’s mind to approach social justice issues and community projects to help in whatever way I can. These extracurricular applications of design have taught me so much and given me a huge amount of experience and exposure in a risk-free way, and they don’t require formal training or a professional background to give it a go. They also keep the fire in my belly for the impact that design can have!

Reach out to designers. There are so many different avenues and types of design, and there’s a space for everyone. Keeping a broad perspective and learning about as many people’s roles as you can will give you a great steer on what would light you up and where your current experience might be a good segue into. You’ll also get great advice about skill-building and build a strong network in the process, so it’s worth putting yourself out there.

If you don’t enjoy your role, find the parts that you do enjoy, even if they’re outside your core role, and do more of them. If you have a career setback or feel stuck, focus on what you can do positively that you enjoy. If you enjoy something, your passion will shine through, and it will build momentum for you in ways you didn’t think possible. My best career moves have been when I’ve made decisions based on passion while rejecting roles that paid more but didn’t light me up.

How important has networking or being part of a professional community been in your career?

I was always totally averse to the traditional networking model, but looking back, I have actually based my entire career on informal networking. I’ve often brazenly reached out to ask people for a coffee, not always because I wanted something from them specifically but because I believed it would be an interesting conversation for us both. I have met so many lovely people who have been delighted to offer their time. At other times, when I did have a particular interest in meeting with someone for career advice, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that people generally like being asked, regardless of their seniority. I often ask for one piece of advice and one book recommendation at the end of informal chats like this, and I can’t tell you how insightful it has been and how many doors this has opened up for me.

Professional communities like the IDI have been fantastic for enabling me to meet a lot of very experienced people doing great things. I attend a lot of IDI events, and I can already see, only a year into my design career, that these informal networks are boundless wells of inspiration and traction. They can be great spaces for people with a broad variety of experience to connect over a common passion for design, even if it’s not the focus of their career. I’ve also met a huge amount of people starting out in design at these events, mingling with the top dogs in design, and find that these events are really welcoming. It’s vitally important to recognise the lack of equity in starting a research and design career, and I feel like these spaces do a great job of opening doors for people. They have already been so important in my career so far.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in your career?

I wouldn’t have worried early on about not following a traditional career ladder. I’m a big believer that we are not all given the same start, opportunities, or chances in life. However, we can all take control of how we react in situations, and I’m proud of the heart-led decisions that I’ve made along the way. They’ve led me to have a career that I adore.

I really believe there’s no rush in your career, and I needn’t have been so eager to get ahead early on. Most of us can expect to have a long career over the span of decades if we’re lucky, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. All of those experiences in seemingly unrelated jobs have given me indispensable skills that are vital to my success in my day-to-day role. Those experiences were all meaningful and allowed me to accelerate in my recent design career.

If I knew what I know now, I would have relaxed and enjoyed the process of my varied career a bit more. I know now that the most important thing is that you feel like the work you are doing is meaningful. It allows you to live a balanced life, spend lots of time with your family and friends, and always be learning in the process!