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Phil Smithson

UX Designer / Startup Entrepreneur

Security Bank clients since 2015

Phil in deep thought as he prepares to talk about human-centered design

“Starting a business can be daunting—even more so doing it almost 7,000 miles from home. For Phil Smithson—an engineer turned designer and entrepreneur—it comes down to solving real-world problems with empathy.”

Phil’s Facebook page is a running commentary on Service Design issues – positive and negative (thanks for the feedback – Phil!) – in the Philippines. We met him shortly after a set of posts on another bank’s widely publicized communication error. “Parang it feels more human being a Security Bank customer,” he muses while showing us around his company’s office in Makati. “I feel welcome when I go to my branch. They’re more about finding solutions to my problems.”

As a service designer, problems are Phil’s business. “I saw the problem of expats living in the Philippines not being able to engage with locals – we solved that by creating a business and service and a product that meets those needs.” He adds before sharing more about his startups: “It’s really much like what we do with On-Off Group and Learn Tagalog Fast. Seeing a financial institution mirror the core values of our business makes it even better.”

Phil is a designer, but he can’t draw. He’s British, but he speaks and teaches Tagalog. Staying true to his unpredictable nature, it would take him thousands of miles to realize his true calling.

In 2008, Phil moved to the Philippines for a chance at a different life. It wasn’t his first trip abroad. For him, venturing outside the UK—to a country with a different culture and language—was the best way to learn more about the world and himself.

His first foray into business was challenging. “It was terrifying,” he recalls, thinking back to resigning from his job to focus on his first startup. “As soon as you resign, you go from having guaranteed money coming in to guaranteed money going out.”

Nowadays, Phil is the lead service designer and director of the On-Off Group as well as the CEO of his startup, Learn Tagalog Fast. When asked about what keeps him going, the 32-year old lights up and reiterates his problem-positive mentality: “The secret is not to get bothered about the money,” he says with a smirk. “We’re not in business to, you know, trick people into giving us money. We’re in the business to solve problems and then the money might come after.”

What got you into design?

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how do we make things better for people. It’s hard for me when I go to places ‘cause I can’t turn off the part of my brain that’s analyzing it.

I’m not a visual designer. I can’t draw (expletive)… I don’t use Photoshop or anything like that.

A lot of the thinking that I do comes in at the beginning… the research phase, figuring out what’s the problem—interviewing people, learning about their experiences, experiencing the problem as they experience it, trying to get inside their heads.

It’s really about understanding people—that’s my kind of work.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how do we make things better for people. It’s hard for me when I go to places ’cause I can’t turn off the part of my brain that’s analyzing it. It drives me a little bit crazy ’cause I can’t switch it off. Like just earlier I had to get my apple earphones replaced and their process is just ridiculous.

So it’s human-centered design. Can you tell us more about that?

[Human-centered design] is using empathy to create solutions to problems that people have in the world. So those problems can be anything. It can be “I want to get something from a bank” or it could be “I want to involve myself more with the locals” or “I want to get some earphones replaced.”

We design by making sure we understand what people are experiencing – how they are experiencing the problem… putting ourselves in their shoes… getting inside their heads… understanding them and feeling it as they feel it. That’s really how you empathize with them.

Was going into service design always the plan?

No, not at all. I wanted to be a programmer.

But my dad’s an accountant and he didn’t want me to become a software engineer. He said “you should at least try accounting” so I was like “All right, I’ll try accounting.” So I tried accounting for 1 year but it didn’t work out. I switched to programming—software engineering—’cause that’s what I really wanted to do.

How did the company start?

I spent some time working in an agency here in the Philippines as a project manager after I finished my studies… and their approach was kinda backwards. Initially we had no UX (User Experience) team and we would just start building stuff and we’d get halfway through our website. And then after a week of doing that we’ll go, “Yeah we don’t need those anymore, we need this instead.” What the hell [laughs].”

And we got sick of working like that. And we weren’t the boss you know so we didn’t have the full say of how we could do things…Those were the frustrations. So we wanted to set up our own company which had UX at the heart of it to solve real problems for real people.

The designer stuff kind of just came up naturally from that. You kinda see the need for it. And so we founded UXMNL in 2013.

It was terrifying. We were talking about it for a long time and finally we got one project that was enough to pay salary for like 3-4 months or something.

What was it like creating your own startup?

It was terrifying. We were talking about it for a long time and finally we got one project that was enough to pay salary for like 3-4 months or something. So I was like “All right this is probably the best chance we’re gonna get.. Let’s resign!” So I resigned and got a high five from my boss [laughs].

So we set up UXMNL, focused on UX stuff, putting the user first, making sure we were solving real problems, prototyping… that kind of stuff. We started off with large UX events and at one point, we got the people from On-Off Group to do an event with us. So they came and did like a one day UX workshop and we hit it off.

We had what they call a bizmance. It’s like a romance but for business [laughs]. We got on so well that after we teamed up and UXMNL officially became part of the On-Off Group.

You mentioned that you were scared during the start, what exactly were you scared of?

Literally as soon as you resign you go from having guaranteed money coming in on the 15th and 30th of the month, to guaranteed money going out 15th and 30th. So it’s a total 180°. Then you’re like “(Expletive) how do I pay the bills now?”

The first few months were really scary and painful… well, you learn a lot.

Oh man, you learn a lot.

What did you learn from that experience?

After 6 months, we were like “Wait a minute.”

We’d become like the agency we used to work for. We’d become exactly what we didn’t want to become. So we took a step back and focused on the user experience.

There were also so many things to worry about.. like all the admin stuff that no one likes doing. You’ve got to employ people that do the BIR and all the boring but important stuff—the invoices, accounting, filing, paychecks. There was also sales and marketing. Having one customer is nice but you’re not gonna survive forever on one customer.

You learn so much from your first business, which is nice because I know what to expect now. It’s absolutely the best way to learn. And it’s exactly the same process that we use for UX—learning by doing and by failing.

Do you still remember what made you decide to move here?

I think it was really the job. I’ve always liked travelling, I’ve been around a bit. I spent 3 months in Paris learning French and then 3 months in a German company. And then I came here to work for a French company so it kinda made sense. But no, it was really the job. Boringly. [laughs]

It was just for a chance at a different life I guess, compared to the UK. Not that I wasn’t happy with the UK but I just wanted to experience something else, really. There’s nothing like the UK here—from the weather, to the people, to everything.

For me, travelling and spending time in a different country is a chance to kinda grow and learn more about yourself—by interacting with other cultures you come to realize different world views.

What adjustments did you have to make moving here?

Funny thing is that the language requires a bit of adjusting even if they say everyone speaks English. You use it differently here. Like when I went to Ministop and at the counter I asked “can I have a bag?” and the lady goes “what?” I say “a bag, can I have a bag?” and she goes “ah, plastic!” So, there’s that language adjustment you gotta make.

Culturally, I really like that I speak Tagalog because man, it’s genuinely so much fun! Like, at least once a day, I’ll have an experience where I speak Tagalog and then a guy says “Oh, marunong ka pala mag-tagalog?

Do you remember the first Tagalog word that you learned?

What springs into mind now is “Anong balita, chong?” [laughs] Like I remember when I first came here, I wanted to speak Tagalog so I was just devouring Top 10 lists of words and phrases. You know “kaliwa, kanan” and “Anong balita, chong?” was in there as well. All the important stuff.

You actually turned that into a business right? Would you call that your passion project?

Absolutely. That’s something that I’ve had in my mind for a long time. I’ve got all these friends who don’t speak Tagalog and I don’t know why. Maybe because they think it’s gonna be hard or it’s gonna be a waste of time. And so I had the idea of doing something that would teach them Tagalog.

The first thing that I did was I went to a restaurant and wrote like 5 email lessons. I put that into MailChimp and I shared the link on some expat Facebook groups for free. A lot of people signed up. I was like “okay, people are interested” and there was good feedback on the content.

Then one of my friends came to me and said “Hey, can we put the email content you have into an app?” So he made an app, we just launched it, and then forgot about it. When we checked back, we were surprised to see 5,000 downloads, that was last year. Now we’re at 20,000 plus!

Do you remember the first Tagalog word that you learned?

We’re making decent amount of money. I’m super happy with how much money the Learn Tagalog Fast business is making, unexpectedly so. Because I was happy doing it for free in the beginning.

I think the Human Switch Kit got me in. It was the idea that you’re a bank that focuses on customer experience by making customers’ lives easier. It really comes from the understanding of the customer.

How did you find out about Security Bank?

I think the Human Switch Kit got me in. It was the idea that you’re a bank that focuses on customer experience by making customers’ lives easier. It really comes from the understanding of the customer.

Like, the customers are at work 9-6, the banks are also open 9-6—so how does a customer open an account? You have to take time out of the day. Or, here’s an innovation: Human Switch Kit.

Having that on your website reassured me, as a customer, that you’re gonna focus more on my customer experience. Because other banks to my knowledge don’t have anything similar—something that makes it easier to become their customer.

How’s your experience with Security Bank?

Fantastic! When you go to the branch, you get such a warm welcome. Like you’re a regular customer and they know you. All the tellers are like “Hello! Where’s your son? When’s he coming back?”

Parang it feels more human being a Security Bank customer. I feel welcome when I go to the branch and they always ask me “How can I help you?” They’re more about finding solutions to my problems. It’s really much like what we do with On-Off Group and Learn Tagalog Fast. Seeing a financial institution mirror the core values of our business just makes it even better.

Looking back, what was your journey like from being an accounting student, to programmer, to a designer and an entrepreneur?

I think it’s always been about solving problems. Actually if you’re an accountant, you’re solving problems for the business. If you’re a software engineer, you’re really creating things that are really usable, pretty, beautiful… but if they’re not solving a real problem, no one is gonna use it.

[My journey’s] also about relationships and communication with people—it’s about the human experience. We’re human beings creating experience through products and services so we could design those experiences. And we do that better by understanding who we’re designing for.

Lastly, it helps to have a mindset of taking risks and not being afraid to fail. You actually learn more from failing. And don’t get so bothered by the money. That’s the startup mindset.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Photography by John Eric Diaz Eudin

Just like Phil, you can solve your problems with Security Bank.

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