A Brief History of the UX Philippines Community

(And UXPhilippines.com)


“Uh, what the hell is UX?”

My eyebrows knotted as my boss tells me I had been given the role of a UX Manager.

In 2007, I joined a Nasdaq-listed, Top 1oo e-commerce website as a project manager. My expertise back then was Search Engine Optimization (SEO). I was under the marketing department and my role transitioned into User Experience (or UX for short — I know, why X and not E?). At that time, you could not find a UX job in the popular job-hunting sites in Manila (jobstreet, jobsdb, trabaho.com) so the job description was vague for me. The only place I could find a UX position with description was at Monster Jobs (a US company).

This was my first encounter with UX. Few people knew this career choice then. I had to find out what this User Experience really meant.

Rise of UX (2007)

Where did UX come from?

If you search for a history of UX, you'll see that the author of the “Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman is credited to have been the first User Experience professional back in 1995.

It was only in 2007, the year the iPhone came out, that the term User Experience become widely used. The iPhone was a “leapfrog” product with an amazing touch screen interface. The thinking was that you had to be UX designer to create amazing products like this.

“Help! Where are the UX people in the Philippines?”

I wanted to reach out and learn from people with the knowledge to help me improve. I remember searching online for anyone with the title “User Experience” in the Philippines. I could not find one.

My friends were SEO guys, the designers and the web analytics people and my burden was to be the “UX” guy.

Marc Macalua, my boss back then, had founded the SEO community and owned the domain SEO.ph (which he later sold for an undisclosed sum). I had seen how the SEO community evolve. We had contests back then and I won 7th place in one.

Following his lead, I had also purchased the domains UXPhilippines.com & UsabilityPhilippines.com. For a long time, these two domains just pointed to a customized Google search page. My goal was to reach out and find out those who I could learn UX from.

Luckily, I found out where they were.

UX as Mostly Web Design (2007–2010)

In the Philippines, people seemed to associate UX with User Interfaces (UI) and in particular — websites with great UI. The Philippine Web Designers Organization sprouted at this time and Regnard Raquedan was one of the key players who pushed of UX/UI. I remember him advocating heuristic evaluations of many websites. After Regnard migrated to Canada, Sophia Lucero and Mae Paulino would continue nurturing the local web design community.

They were the first people I could talk about UX with.

A PWDO group photo back from 2009

For a time, my understanding of UX were prototypes & wireframes. That’s what we did, along with competitive UI analysis. We conceptualized based off designs we knew had worked before.

Our lead designer at work was Rico Sta. Cruz. He was a wiz with coding and visual interface design. (He, with James Florentino, would eventually be the key figures in the Manila Javascript community). Rico would translate our wireframes into something our programmers can eventually work with.

If you ask in Quora.com, who the UX people in the Philippines were, Rico would be there.

“I never called myself that.”

Rico would later say in one of our Moving Mobile Forward (another local tech community) group meetups. People called him UX/UI but he admitted never giving himself this title.

This was a recurring confusion in the UX scene.

“If UX is not what we were doing in Web Design, then what was it?”

What was UX and how web design related to it? Is there more to the designing interfaces that we needed to have another term called User Experience?

Product Managers, UX and Usability Labs (2010)

There were no real sources of training for anything that we did and we had to learn online and through books. We pitched for creating a usability lab but we could not justify the prices of eye-tracking hardware.

I had also felt that we were missing something — a human element to what we were doing.

I felt like we machines simply churning out websites based off wireframes & best practices. What about the people who were actually using our websites? Was there something more we could do to help them as they shopped online?

My role in the company changed from UX to that of a Product Manager in 2010. This was when I met Allan.

Allan Caeg joined our company with a fiery passion for linking user interfaces with psychology and behavior. We had lively discussions on making the User Interfaces relevant to its users. Why this color and his microinteraction, and so on.

Allan is the kind of guy who would cry over the death of Steve Jobs. He was that passionate. He had an excellent relationship with Dr. Rose Seva of DLSU’s Human Factors Laboratory.

This became the door to UX that’s beyond just websites. Discussions on Ergonomics, Cognitive Science and Industrial Design became regular discussions points with Allan.

Some Members of the Original Usability Philippines. From Left to Right: Bhrein Salazar, Jennifer Gutierrez, Allan Caeg, Dr. Rose Seva, Ron Polancos, Ely Apao

In one evening, Allan, Dr. Rose, Bhrein Salazar from Smart Telco, with DLSU faculty and I talked about the UX community and how we should be registered in SEC as a formal non-profit group. With us back then was a young passionate designer named Camille Zapata — who also showed interest in UX and UI.

“Let’s build this community and call it Usability Philippines.”

After this discussion, we decided to formalize the group and use the domain UsabilityPhilippines.com for it. We had our first event — the World Usability Day Celebration in December 2, 2011, at the Waldo Perfecto Seminar Room SPS Building, De La Salle University.

Allan Caeg hosted the sessions for Usability Philippines.
Julius Charles Serrano, Research Director of Even Grounds Accessibility Consulting, shared his ideas about “Usability for Persons with Disabilities”. He is visually impaired.
Melissa Limcaoco, Group Head of Smart’s Digital Marketing in 2011, discussed “How to use Digital Media effectively for Campaigns.” He gave a talk on the online campaign for PNOY (Philippine President)

User Experience and Branding (2012)

It was at this time that another design professional, Andrei Gonzales (who was one of the our event’s speakers). Andrei never really branded himself as a UX professional, he had a lot of insights into branding, marketing & the tie-in of user experiences to user interfaces.

“Content first.”

Andrei would be critical on this issue of content in one of my chats online with him. Designing with “lorem ipsum” was like designing a shoe with no one in mind. You design with the who you want the shoe to fit for first.

Andrei Gonzales, Communication Designer and Co-founder of Hugo Manila (2011) where he practiced Identity, Information and Interactive Design. He talked about “Unschooled: Transforming the Way We Learn.” in the World Usability Day Celebration.

Andrei would later on work in the Boston Consulting group (one of the top 100 companies to work for). He designed the original logo for Usability Philippines which we initially called [U]PH in 2012.

March, 2012: The original Usability Philippines (UPH) logo.

Despite the initial successful World Usability day event, the founding members became too busy with their day jobs. We planned for another World Usability event but it did not push through.

We created the Usability Philippines facebook group and we started having meetups. Our first gathering was in a bar in Ortigas. That’s where I also met Mica (Sulit.com.ph’s UX engineer).

March 2013: The first Usability Philippines Bar Meetup. From left to right: Rebecca Harvey,Allan Caeg, Mica De Rivera, Rico Sta. Cruz

International UX and the Startup Scene ( 2011-2014)

The first Startup Weekend Manila happened started in 2011 and became a yearly event. It was also around the same time I noticed Sulit.com.ph (now olx.ph) began thinking about User experiences are more than just User Interfaces. Micael Diaz De Rivera, the UX Engineer for Sulit, became an active member and advocate in the community.

It was in one of our UPH meet ups that I met the Sulit.com.ph team. I joined Sulit as a product manager then eventually as its UX Manager.

July 2013: Micael giving a talk for one UXPH Session in Sulit.com.ph (Now OLX.ph)

The local communities were now really looking at UX — including the startup scene.

“UPH is now UXPH.”

The community discussions transitioned more and more from Usability to User Experience. By 2014, a number of active UX members, including Micael, Russell Morgan and Christine Balatbat from a UX agency called UXMNL, worked with us to rebrand the non-profit organization from UPH to UXPH. Andrei Gonzales again created the branding:

The UXPH branding designed by Andrei Gonzales

Even design agencies were taking a serious look at what UX meant in their space. IMMAP had an entire workshop dedicated to UX.

IMMAP conducted an “I LOVE UX” workshop in 2014

Cebu city also started their own UX Community. In the middle of 2014, Micael and I went there and visited them for a brief meet-up. They’ve been actively doing more and more UX sessions.

At the Cebu UXD community.

Companies like UXMNL & Curiosity Design Research have gained more mainstream recognition.

UXMNL, in particular, became popular for bringing in foreign speakers like Khristin Low and Patti Hunt from Hong Kong to Manila.

[UPDATE: 2016, UXMNL has closed it’s Manila office. Christine Balatbat, who was once the key figure in many of UXMNL’s events despite her low-key profile, has since moved on to OLX]

UXMNL became popular for bringing in foreign speakers to the Philippines. Left to right: Kristin Low, Russell Morgan, Patti Hunt, Phil Smithson.
ChristineBalatbat talks about UX in the PWDO FFC Conference

Diego Maranan, Birdie Salva, and Pamela Cajilig of Curiosity Design Research introduced “design thinking” approaches to user experience design. They’ve researched and prototyped a number of products that have significant social impact including typhoon-proof houses.

Left to Right: Birdie, Pam and Diego of Curiosity.ph.
“My favorite UXPH meetup was the visit to Curiosity.ph”

Briane Paul Samson, a professor in DLSU Taft, would later tell me. It was mini sessions like these made me realize how much impact we can have by just getting people together to talk.

Briane and Ralph Regalado taught UX, Designing Thinking and HCI to their students. With more and more kids asking about UX and UI, we felt our audience getting bigger.

Thus we planned the the UXPH Conference in 2014. It was the first time we had a really large event for our the growing UX community.

We had audacious plans. We wanted a big name foreign speaker to Manila.

We wanted Whitney Hess.

“Whitney Hess is a credible UX coach and speaker. I think we can bring her here.”

Russell Morgan told me and Mica De Rivera one time as I visited him and Christine Balatbat in UXMNL. We were planning for UXPH. Whitney was part of the grand plan.

We called her via Skype and we talked about the possibilities. After some discussions on logistics and expenses, Whitney finally said

“One condition.”

I felt the warm air then and my sweat began to drip. What was she going to ask?

“We can’t turn anyone away even if the venue is full.”

We sighed. It would be tricky to estimate the number of people coming and reserving a venue for the event. We thought we could do it.

With that, she nodded. That was good enough for us. She was coming to Manila. We were elated and planned for the venue.

The venue was indeed tricky as reserving for a large event of around 300 people would cost us a hundred thousand pesos or more. This would have a significant impact on our ticket pricing.

We knew PWDO was going to hold their event (FFC2014) at DLSU’s Henry Sy Sr. Hall. The prices were much more reasonable. We thought, can we also get the same venue?

Thus we asked Briane and Ralph, our two UXPH members and DLSU professors about it. They indicated it was possible. We had a venue!

“Keynote speaker, Whitney Hess unable to participate.”

The headline news from UXSG’s event alarmed us. Whitney was also scheduled to visit UXSG as a keynote speaker. Would it have been a problem for her to come to our event too?

Russell emailed Hess a couple of times. Finally we had a confirmation — it was still on. Whitney was still going to Manila.

Whitney Hess during her workshop at the UXPH 2014 Conference

The UXPH Conference had around 300 participants. It was the first time we had a major event for UX in the Philippines.

The UXPH Conference in 2014 featured a number of speakers from different fields.

Moving Forward (2015 — Present)

With more and more companies embracing the Human Centered Design, UX, and the Design Thinking Culture, the future looks promising for UX here in Manila.

A UXPH Meetup in Microsoft Philippines.

The UXPH Members have now been active doing their own teaching sessions and events. Others have been adopting UX in their own way.

UXMNL had their UX Summit in May 2015
Micael and Samantha Chan teaching UX to students
Curiosity Design Research promotes an Urban Design Festival

We’ve come a long way from a simple domain name way back then.

“I’ve finally found the UX Community.”

I smile as I write this article. In a way we accidentally designed our own UX Community. It’s been a product of many iterations of meetups and sessions. I’ve also understood about what it means to be “human-centered.”

It’s about the people. The people make the community work. This article is a tribute to them and to you — the reader.

Perhaps someday whatever we’re doing here might have a significant impact in this country.

Perhaps we’ll have our own little ‘ding’ in the universe.