Founder Spotlight: Phil Smithson of LearnTagalogFast

From human-centric views to communicating Tagalog effectively

By Jean De Ramon


Doing a lot of things all at the same time is tough; but doing everything efficiently is even harder—passion, dedication, patience and skill is required to make everything work. An example of such would be Phil Smithson; he is not only the director at On-Off Group, but also the founder of LearnTagalogFast, mentor at IdeaSpace Foundation Inc., Software Engineering Resource Speaker at Adamson University and country manager at Design Thinking Asia. Though these roles may be linked in one way or another, how Phil is able to effectively deliver what each role requires amazes us.


Human-centered design at On-Off Group

Customers are a very essential part for every business; without them most companies would have long been gone. With this thought in mind, it is important for businesses to make sure that their customers are given the best experience when using their products/services. Phil says that this is what On-Off Group has in mind every time they help large corporates (including Fortune 500 companies),  start-ups and entrepreneurs. During the first meeting, they give out cards with the questions: “How does this help the customer?” and “What problem is being solved?” They do this because they want to make sure that they stay on track when addressing issues. Getting to the core “problem” is very important—knowing whether they are creating a new experience or are they just optimizing an old one.

Since On-Off Group is focused on better customer experience, Phil says that they want to make sure that every solution is human-centered, and an end-to-end experience. “We want to map out the emotional state when the customers use the product/service. We spend time and observe them while they use the service so that we will understand their experiences from their point-of-view.” Phil shares. He adds that they also want to be able to give the companies the visibility of the experiences of the customers because it is more persuasive to present real stories rather than data gathered from surveys.

Phil explained that they also consider employee experience—especially the systems—because it directly affects their responsiveness to the concerns of the customers. “Being able to dive deeper into the customers’ experiences and feeling what they feel is very important to us.” Phil added.

A unique experience at LearnTagalogFast

As a foreigner, Phil said that it was a very big of an adjustment for him to live here in the Philippines. From the world-view to the culture and the language, it was very different from what he was brought up to in UK. Surprisingly, for him “It’s generally more fun in the Philippines—it sounds silly but it’s true.”

LearnTagalogFast was established because he wanted to be able to help other foreigners here in the Philippines to be able to learn the Tagalog language like the way he enjoyed learning it. “Learning a couple of words made me feel so welcome and I wanted my friends to experience it as well.” he says. “It’s fun when I see people’s reaction when they find out that I know how to speak Tagalog.” Phil continues.

He started making LearnTagalogFast into a reality by writing 5 email lessons that he sent to different Facebook groups and asked for their feedback. Getting positive reviews, Phil translated these email lessons into 10 offline lessons and many liked their teaching style. “At LearnTagalogFast, we want it to be conversational and situational. Being able to speak is of utmost importance to us.” he shares.

Phil says that their unique selling point is that they are focused on teaching their students one-on-one how to speak, interact, and handle different scenarios with native speakers. Because of the success, a friend of his suggested that they convert the email lessons into an application. With thousands of downloads and good feedback, they now offer video lessons and in the future, they plan to also include podcasts through the app.

Mentoring about User Experience through Design Thinking Asia and IdeaSpace Foundation Inc.

Phil studied Software Engineering and graduated with a First Class (Hons) BSc. Seeing that building software as an engineer wasn’t really that much concerned about User Experience (UX), he wanted to innovate. For him, User Experience is very important that is why he decided to be better at this field. With years of experience that honed his knowledge in the said field, he became a mentor sharing what he learned to other people—usually the young ones such as students. “At first, I didn't do much mentoring and just focused on teaching through workshops. This was frustrating though as I didn't get to see the application of what they learned in the long term." Phil says. But now, they follow the start-up from the very beginning and help in solving issues with the aid of different mentors from different fields such as Marketing, Sales and Legal.

To address the different User Experience problems faced, he says that he usually starts with a cognitive walkthrough of the experience (digital or non-digital) in which he puts himself in the shoes of the user and goes step by step to understand the deficiencies in the experience. Phil also shares that communication will be one of the major problems that start-ups would be facing. To address this and the other issues faced by start-ups, problems should be solved as a team. One way he enjoys doing this is by having the team list out what are the good things they're doing that need to be continued and what are the bad things they're doing that need to be stopped and then look at solutions together to find ways to improve overall. “It’s not me telling them that “This is the solution;” instead, it’s me helping them find the solution.” He says.

Lastly, Phil tells us that for him, mentoring at IdeaSpace is the most rewarding job for him. Being able to see young people eager to learn is very important for him since they are the generation who learn by doing.