Nov 02, 2016

Interview with Phil Smithson

The On-Off Group marries human-centred design with technology to develop innovative products and services and create signature service experiences across multiple channels, devices, platforms and media.

Phil Smithson, Director of the On-Off Group, gives us a small taste of their process when conducting customer experience studies. He also talks about Learn Tagalog Fast, a startup that he founded (seemingly by accident) that teaches foreigners how to speak the local language and his responsibilities as a mentor to teams in Ideaspace, where he brings his UX-experience to the table.

Learn more about human-centered design by visiting and if you are in need of some tips on how to learn Tagalog fast, drop by their website at

Full Interview Transcript

Interview with Phil Smithson: Podcast


By Asha Gutierrez


Techshake Radio: November 2016


              “The On-Off Group marries human-centred design with technology to develop innovative products and services and create signature service experiences across multiple channels, devices, platforms and media.


Phil Smithson, Director of the On-Off Group, gives us a small taste of their process when conducting customer experience studies. He also talks about Learn Tagalog Fast, a startup that he founded (seemingly by accident) that teaches foreigners how to speak the local language and his responsibilities as a mentor to teams in Ideaspace, where he brings his UX-experience to the table.”



Interview between Paolo (interviewer) and Phil (interviewee) the founder of Learn Tagalog fast.


Paolo: How are you doing today?

Phil: I’m good thank you very much! I’m very good

Paolo: I want to talk about the cards that you actually gave to me.

Phil: Yeah

Paolo: It says, “What problem are we solving here on one-side and how does this help our customer on the other side?”

Phil: Yeah. The card means that the two questions are kind of made into cards. This was made from an idea of a Kristine Lowe, one of my business partners who is actually from the Hong Kong team. The idea here is that we give these cards out to customers and they use them in meetings, an orange card. Like in soccer and football you have like a red or yellow card. The story behind this is we want customers to use these cards in a meeting when they are talking about new products or services. We want the people to own the card up. It is like a non-confrontational thing as you hold up and use the card. It is about getting people back on track and refocusing to make sure that the focus on the customer because at the end of the day, we are here to solve the customers’ problems. Whether this be a start-up or a large company we exist because we add value to customers at some point. So if we cannot answer the question then what problem we are solving. Then what are we talking about?

Paolo: Exactly.

Phil: That is how to help our customer.

Paolo: Maybe you can tell us about what you do in such on and off group.

Phil: Yes. We are a service designed consultancy. A lot of people don’t know what that means and we spend a lot of time explaining what that means.

Paolo: Yes.

Phil: So service designed consultancy basically in a nutshell means we help design better customer services for people and part of that is doing research and learning about their experience. A part of it is about mapping out the journey through the different touch points and it is really about the end-to-end customer experience that we’ re talking about. It’s not just one little channel that is digital, it is the whole. Everything affects my experience and the customer’s.

Paolo: Okay.

Phil: We have been trying one thing that we have been trying to do. That is to give customer’s visibility over that. A lot of companies don’t know what their customer are experiencing. That is why we help them. The first thing we do is we usually do some research and then we give them visibility on what we were able to find. From there we look on how we were able to design a better experience. It is not just about the customer’s experience. It is also about the employee’s experience that can have an impact here as well. Because if you are looking at the systems that the employees use can directly affect how responsive they are to customer’s needs. For example, how quickly can I accommodate your request depends perhaps in some cases on the system that I need to use as a customer service agent.

Paolo: What is your process like? How do you actually find out how the customers’ experiences are like?

Phil: Basically we spend a lot of time doing research and learning about our customers. Like who are they as human beings. We try to get inside their heads and observe things like their personas. That way, we are able to notice the different customer types coming in and the main goal for this phase is to research and identify the core problem that we are solving. Whether it is a real problem or optimizing an experience. It is an intense research phase in which we shadow the customer or the employee.

Paolo: So you actually like, spend time with the customers?

Phil: Absolutely! Yes, because we have to. Those are the people who are experiencing the service and we need to understand from their point of view.

Paolo: Is this just like handing out forms for them to fill out?

Phil: No, we do a deep dive on our customer’s data in order to feel the experience form their point of view. We are kind of persuasive for the bosses of the companies because we have a survey and a lot of data that can be less persuasive. We need real human stories coming up and real videos of somebody using your experience. That can be actually be a good fuel for persuading our customers that they should care for their customers’ experiences. A lot of companies don’t know or don’t care much about their customers’ experiences.

Paolo: So we talk a lot about your user experience but let us go back a bit to know where you started. Did you even really want to do UX in the first place?

Phil: No, I started off as wanting to be a programmer when I was younger. My older brother was into programming and he influenced me into making games and other stuff. He was around 17 that time and I was around 7 or 8 years old.

Paolo: Wow!

Phil: There was a big age gap. Then I went to the University and started doing Accounting actually.

Paolo: Accounting?

Phil: Yeah!

Paolo: Accounting and then how did it happen?

Phil: Well, my dad is an Accountant and that is one of the things we thought about doing. Tried that for a while and didn’t work out for me and so I switched to Software Engineering and then I did a 4 year course in the UK. I came here to do an Internship as part of my third year then come back here to work for an agency.

Paolo: Why come here? I mean why besides internship, why do you come back?

Phil: I came back because there was a job offer that seemed to be nice. I think I wanted to experience something different from UK. Try a different life because I’ve been there for 24 years. I want to experience something different and it is different here. Nothing is the same. Even the language, they say it’s English but it’s not British English. It is genuinely more fun in the Philippines. It is why I wanted to come back.

Paolo: When you came back, your first job was?

Phil: So, I worked as project manager in a company who used to make Java applications. I managed a small team with developers in a project. It kind of progressed through that. We started off as a small one. They are like a solution provider that basically makes software for people in Europe and America. They changed the bit into thinking about company branding and stuff like that. After that they become an ad agency for local market, we were working with large bands locally and facebook, mobile, or website apps to compete against the large companies like Lisa Bonet and those kind of people.

Paolo: Oh.

Phil: It was actually interesting to see the company change so much. It seemed to change every two years and it was like having a new job every couple of years. That is why it was very interesting for me to see its growth and change.

Paolo: From there, how did you get started in UX?
Phil: We didn’t do UX really, in software engineering. It is really all about how we build the software. We were never thought to think about the user which is crazy. For some reason, we skip that module. Software engineering. The UX came about, in the agency. It is on thinking about the users experience on sites. I do remember the first time when it became obvious to me that maybe we do not have the best process…. [ ] They would spend days working for a website, it was like a competition for a local brand and they did design all these screens that 3-4 days of revisions. In the end, it does not make any sense because we don’t need that. We should do something else instead. Then they start to jump from that one project to another while spending a few days on design. They go straight to Photoshop which is actually stupid because it does not follow a kind of flow but this was a long time ago.

Paolo: Yes.

Phil: Looking back it was weird. It kind of became obvious to me that maybe we should think of the user’s experience. That came up. Then the day we created a user’s department company, and starting to create frames which is compared to just going straight to design as like before. It is quicker to revise the frame. That became part of the process. The UX team never lingered anymore. This is my first awareness in this agency.

Paolo: Was your experience in UX Manila a quick transition or do you have to learn more things. Did you have to study?

Phil: No, it was an easy transition. I was kind of doing the same thing. My frustrations were due to it being an agency and we were working with companies that didn’t really add to the value of the customer as they were not really asking from a card. We were not really helping our customers, it is more about on how we can sell more products and for MSCG brands. It didn’t really like creating an impact in the world. We wanted to set-up Manila with the goal of working in a way that will put the user first, thinking on how we can do good for the user. To focus on making their lives better in some way. That was the drive for starting UX Manila.

Paolo: Let’s talk about Learn Tagalog Fast. That’s really interesting also. What made you actually think of this app or program.

Phil: Just being a foreigner in the Philippines made me aware of the adjusting I guess. It is different to live here compared to UK. Everything is different… [ ] They are different worlds..

It makes you realize that there are different world views not just one way of viewing the world. It is  big adjustment coming here. One of the things that helped me adjust and enjoy life here is learning the language. Since the beginning, I have been learning Tagalog and I do remember getting a few phrases.

Paolo: What was the first phrase you learned?

Phil: One of the basics terms, like the ‘kaliwa’ and ‘kanan’ stuff. Since the beginning I have been trying to learn things that would make people laugh. Such as, “Anong balita tiyong.” Or “What’s up dude.” It’s like a casual way of saying it. When I say that, people laugh and this makes me want to learn more….[ ] I get a reputation of making things to make people laugh. It is great and fun, making me feel very welcome here.

Paolo: Do you have an app or program that help learn Tagalog fast now?
Phil: Yes! How we started was when I had the idea. I had the idea for a long time and I got these friends here who couldn’t speak in Tagalog. I am here speaking the language and really enjoying it. It is not like going to France or Germany or going to learn the language, here you speak a couple of words and you feel so welcome. I want the people to experience that welcome as well.

I didn’t know what to do about this idea for a long time and that was annoying. I was always thinking about what I can do to take this idea to the next step. I am annoyed to I have not moved on in this idea for nearly two years or longer. The first thing that I did was I went to this restaurant and I wrote five different e-mail lessons. Every five-day course, with an e-mail lesson teaching them something for every day. [ ] I share the link to a Facebook group for selling products and stuff saying, “Hey I built this thing, I am not sure if it’s any good, it’s free. Could you try it out, test it, and give me some feedback?” We had like three hundred sign-ups from that and I was like, “Okay, so people do really want to learn Tagalog.”

Paolo: Wow.

Phil: Because my first question was, “What if nobody wants to learn Tagalog?” I wanted to find out easily, cheaply, and quickly. I wanted to see the Market and the urgency for that. I used the e-mail link to check this out. Well, there are two kinds of Tagalog to learn. One of them is like you super know everything about Tagalog that you can read books and understand them. I think most people don’t need to know that. There is another level of Tagalog which is conversational or functional Tagalog. It is in which we focus on making the people function and work in different situations. The different applications here would be like learning office situations or in dialogue during meetings.

Paolo: Oh! That’s nice. I like it!

Phil: It is very situational. Yes. Because that is kind of like what you need in the Philippines. You don’t need more than that. As long as you can do most of those situations then you are more than capable of speaking Tagalog.

Paolo: I like your number 8. Dating.

Phil: We haven’t done that yet (laughter)

Paolo: (laughter)

Phil: We haven’t done any yet. It is still a concept to consider. But yeah I think for sure, some people are interested in that. It’s about meeting with the opposite sex.


Paolo: How is it now like, what are you doing now?

Phil: Now, we’ve got to do the e-mail program and the feedback was okay. The next step I did was to make some plan for offline courses related to the lessons. Ten sessions worth of offline material. I created this last year and again I wasn’t sure if the material was any good or any useful and I wanted to validate that. I did the same thing, I put it on Facebook and asked people if they will be interested in a one-on-one  5 hour free Tagalog language lessons because I am testing out this material and I am not sure if it is any good. However, fifty comments said yes. Okay, too many people.

Paolo: (laughter)

Phil: So, I picked a couple of people, and did some kind of trial and pile up project if you like. Tested it on them and got some good feedback because they liked the material. They liked the teaching style as well. That is one of our unique selling points, we are different in the way we teach. We focus on speaking. We don’t have loads of exercise books or loads of fill in the gaps crap. It is not about that. It is all about what is needed in the Philippines. You don’t need to read or write in the Philippines. You need to learn how to speak and interact with the people and handle different situations and scenarios.  [ ] They learn Tagalog fast because we focus on speaking. In the lessons here, it is mostly about speaking. This helps in making the connections between the words that you do have at the back of your head and getting these when needed it in a given situation.

Paolo: Oh I see.

Phil: In the session, we try to practice build-up and the memory recall easier when you are in these scenarios.

Paolo: Okay. I understand.

Phil: Also we have the e-mail as the first step, then there was the offline lessons. Around the same time, my friend came to me and said, “Hey Phil, we need to make the e-mail content into an app.” I was like, “Okay, do it.” He went and did it, he did it himself by designing and build it.

He works in the Android ios and he uploaded it to the play store. We forgot about it but when we checked after six months, and there were five thousand downloads!

Paolo: (laughter)

Phil: I mean, how did that happen? Okay, so there was an interest in this and so now we are at twenty-four thousand plus downloads. Which was like totally unexpected. It came out of nowhere. We’re getting good reviews as well. We are four and a half stars… [ ] They were giving ratings good ratings. We got the app now as well. We got the premium version of the app but more content.

Paolo: You have brand new app before?

Phil: It’s like we’re using the same app but with more content. It is really a simple app. It’s clearly more about the content and the way in which we wrote it. We make it focused on situation Tagalog dialogues. The next thing that we’re doing is creating video lessons.

Paolo: Okay. I think I saw it.

Phil: I think I showed you.

Paolo: Yes the one, “Mag beer tayo.” (Let us drink beer.)

Phil: Yes, so I did like five video lessons yesterday based on the e-mail program. We make like micro-lessons 2 minutes per lesson. It is just showing me explaining the topics of the lesson. We launched it again on Youtube yesterday for free to validate other’s interest and see how we can make the videos. I do not have a video team yet so it was more of a practice for me as I create something that adds value to people’s lives and solve some problems for them. It always come back to the cards.

Paolo: Yeah.

Phil: We had some good feedback and we have some people who subscribe to the channel. We are already going. Just two hours ago I sent an e-mail and created a list for the program showing lessons for the people who are interested.

Paolo: Do you reach more people that way? In terms of videos.

Phil: Yeah.

Paolo: Versus like one-on-one classes?

Phil: Yeah. I guess. Now, we are going to see. That is something we will see given that we just launched this. Planning on doing some podcasts.

Paolo: Awesome! Just like, “Teach me Tagalog.”

Phil: Yeah. Some micro podcasts I guess. Because some requires a little bit less responding and it is easier to set up. Try to keep it light and fun. Maybe interview some students for that as well.

Paolo: Yes!

Phil: That’s one of the things that we have up the pipe as well right now.

Paolo: On your way here, like into your room, there were like a few people from Ideaspace walking out.

Phil: Yeah.

Paolo: So I want to know, like to ask about your experience as a mentor now?

Phil: I really really like it!

Paolo: Enjoying it?

Phil: I am really enjoying it!

Paolo: Did you do that in UX Manila right? Like you kind of also mentored there and thought people. How was it different from your experience now?

Phil: We did a lot of workshops before, like a two hour UX workshop for a lot of students last year and that really didn’t feel like mentoring because we go in, we teach UX, and then we go away and we never see them again.

Paolo: I see.
Phil: Which is a shame. That is why the Ideaspace the we are doing now is really good because we get to follow a start-up from the beginning in validating their products and helping them solve team problems and things like that. It really feels like you enjoy and you learn. You see the progressing of the people going along well. There are a lot of mentor teaching them things as well so there was a lot of to do. [ ] There is an attorney, and many different kinds of mentors actually. It is really fascinating. So the teams get to learn from everybody and you see them progress through the journey. You meet them regularly and it’s nice seeing the team learn from that. We just had a session this morning and they had a problem in regards to how they were working as a team and product validation. [ ]

Paolo: Yeah! Back to the cards!

Phil: Yeah, it always go back to the cards.

Paolo: Yes.

Phil: This stuff that you can see on the whiteboard behind me is a retrospective meeting.

Paolo: Can we talk a bit about it?

Phil: Sure!
Paolo: On the left side says, continue or good.

Phil: Yes.

Paolo: Then stop bad on the right.

Phil: Yes.

Paolo: So what did you mean? There are other stickers: laugh, be creative, and be optimistic. Okay, what’s on the bad side?

Phil: Let me explain to you. Three columns. Things going well, things we want to continue doing, and things we want to stop doing. Then after we’ve done the first two things, then we go to how do we improve those things. From there we categorize the different bad issues into different kinds of solution areas there.
Paolo: Oh. So that’s what I was also wondering about. You guys are doing well because the bad sides are really empty.

Phil: No. All the bad things are gone into the improving now.

Paolo: Ah I see.

Phil: Actually I took a picture this morning. There were just so many things in the bad section. We spent the first fifteen minutes of silence, to give them a pen and a pad of post it notes and then they write down good and bad things.

Paolo: Okay.

Phil: Then we stick them all on the wall, and that’s how it looked this morning.

Paolo: Okay.

Phil: We looked at the wall and we discussed together. About the bad things and think on what we need to do to stop these things from happening again. We then categorized the different improvements into four different solution areas. Depending on what comes down naturally so there is no fixed rule in the improvements. We take them one by one actually. So we went through about fifty bad points this morning.

Paolo: Wow.

Phil: Yes, and one-by-one we figured it out by finding how we can solve them.

Paolo: That’s interesting because your experience is more on the user experience. How does this relate to you.

Phil: I think that there is a lot of overlap here. It’s really for me, everything we do, we build, we create, it’s all about human interactions and human experiences.

Paolo: Yes.

Phil: So we are using it as a base. It’s quite easy to just use your empathy to help the team understand what they are going through as well and what is causing the problems. Having that experiences as customers translates you to working in teams. It is really a problem with start-ups. There are always an issue in communication. [ ] Talking to each other, even about things like tracking work and making sure that we have regular check-ups and in a working progress. Working together as a team and are we communicating well with our stakeholders. It is always a key to have communication.
Paolo: Yes. I see.

Phil: I remember being a student of Software Engineering. Something about project management. They were telling us that the biggest problem they have is not technical. The biggest problems you are going to have would be around communication. When you are like twenty, you are like, “Yeah, whatever, I need to fix this database thing.” And then you start work and you start business. That’s when you realize, “Wow, actually yeah, so many problems are down to about communication.”

Paolo: Yes.

Phil: I really enjoy helping the start-ups because they come in and they don’t know how to solve it. The first help that I do is get out from each of the team members’ problems by putting it somewhere visible, so we can talk about it. That way we solve it as a team. [ ] I really like that, I really enjoy that part in my work.
Paolo: That’s great. I think you just really enjoy solving problems and finding what the problems are. I think that is the biggest take in your class. Like what problem are we solving here?

Phil: Yeah. Exactly.

Paolo: We should give these people the cards.

Phil: You can text some and tell them. [ ]

Paolo: I want you to plug your different themes, like how can people reach you, how can people learn Tagalog fast with you?

Phil: So they should check-out the Facebook page Learn Tagalog Fast. Also Design Thinking Asia. We are doing a lot of UX training around in South East Asia.

Paolo: We can also talk a bit about that. What do you do for design in Asia?

Phil: We do build a community around design thinkers. Because design thinking is overlapping between things that are hard to separate from.

Paolo: Yeah.

Phil: Design thinking, human design.

Paolo: Yes.

Phil: User experience, customer experience.

Paolo: Yes.
Phil: I don’t know. I’d rather talk about what they have in common than how to define them because how to define them is just an endless, never-ending conversation. We do everything around these different topics. One thing we do is the regular user experience, once a month in Manila and also in Hong Kong. We do service design training in Hong Kong. We try to bring that in Manila as well. Not just Manila actually. We also got UX in Cebu and Davao later this year. We kind of experimenting actually. Because we don’t know if there is a market there for UX.

Paolo: Okay.

Phil: Yep.
Paolo: So this design thinking in Asia.

Phil: Yeah.

Paolo: On-off group, Learn Tagalog Fast,

Phil: Yes.

Paolo: and what else, what else do you have going on? Besides your security bank interviews?

Phil: (laughter) I enjoyed that. That was really funny. Weird.

Paolo: You are a celebrity now apparently!

Phil: Apparently, yeah. Just mentoring for something is what I do. Yes, I think that feels the most rewarding. Yes, that’s the work, rewarding. Seeing these young people learning by doing these things. That’s why I do these e-mail, and all. You won’t know what it will look like until you’ve done it. Then you know more about it, then you can start seeing on how you can choose your direction about it.
Paolo: Any last words? Say it in Tagalog!

Phil: Salamat.

Paolo: (laughter)

Phil: (laughter)

Paolo: Thank you so much for this interview.

Phil: Thank you so much.

Paolo: I want to thank Phil Smithson for this wonderful podcast and for letting us do it in his office. [ ]