Building your company’s first in-house design team

3 things I learned building DBS’ first in-house design team: going from 2 to 50 people in four years.

Chooake Wongwattanasilpa
DBS Design


30th April 2018 was the four-year anniversary of the DBS Consumer Banking Group Design team. In the span of four years, we’ve grown from two designers (me and Ed Chu) to 50 before the end of this year.

We’ve gone from wearing banker-like suits on our first day (and feeling very uncomfortable) to jeans and t-shirts, winning the “war” in using Macs and having a design studio in our office.

This is the story of how designers infiltrated the world of banking, and three things we learned in the process.

How I got my foot in the door

In 2013, DBS engaged a design agency to revamp their internet banking and public website. During the process a few senior leaders in the Consumer Banking Group realised that design is a competitive strength. To keep the momentum going, they decided to build an in-house design team.

I got the call from DBS recruiters in Q1 2014. After careful consideration, weighing pros and cons, I accepted the challenge. Day one: after unpacking and setting up an Apple Display and MacBook Pro by myself (Macs were not official DBS computers and the IT team couldn’t help me), I started hiring.

№1: Let your work speak for you

Our first hires were all designers capable of doing both UX and UI (interaction & visual design): ‘The Magic 8’ included Ed Chu, Bady ,Lin Je-We, Sigit Adinugroho, Chihiro, Abel Law, Serene Yap and I.

We assigned designers to a few key projects to show the other teams how to work with designers and the value they can bring to the table.

The strategy was simple — deliver high quality work to help other teams understand the value of design.

Our iconic login screen debut in late 2014
Our app suite

Only after we had built a strong core of designers did we start to hire researchers, with the reason being that non-designers need visual aids to help them understand the proposed customer journey.

Hand-drawn sketches won’t do if you’re just starting to educate your company on what design is and how it can help. We used visual design and interactive prototype to communicate with stakeholders.

A side note: it can be a bit dangerous getting stakeholders used to looking only at visual design. It is okay to go into visual design straight away for small-scale work, but it won’t work for large projects so we had to train our stakeholders to ‘read’ wireframes and understand user journey too.

With the help of researchers we could push our stakeholders past their comfort zones and towards an increasingly user-centric design thinking. It was no longer our word against theirs, now we had researchers bringing the voice of our customers to the conversation.

Researchers help us design things right.

Then we started hiring UX Writers to help us tell a clear and memorable story. As with design, writing is a craft. If you want it done well, you need to hire writers with experience writing microcopy.

Now that we have designers, researchers, writers, we’re looking for Design Producers — the unsung heroes who work on the process (and also act as PMs) to make sure UX and UI designers face fewer obstacles in their jobs. Google calls them UX Program Managers. They are the invisible hand running the machine.

We’re also looking for Data Scientists and UX Engineers. After that, we’ll start hiring people with T-shaped skills — Illustrators and Motion Designers — to help us take the UI to the next level. We may also explore hiring AR and VR specialists. From there, it’s just a short road to world domination. :)

№2: Make sure everyone knows where you’re going

My first advice was to let your work speak for you — and that’s exactly what you should do. However, you’ll also need to do some talking yourself.

While the designers were embedded into the key projects going on at the time, other seniors and I spent a lot of time talking to the management of DBS and letting them know our capabilities and plans.

This is our high-level 5-year masterplan

Building a team from scratch is hard. It is easy to get caught up in the million everyday tasks and forget about the big picture or forget to communicate the big picture. There is also a certain weariness that comes from working in big organisations — the endless meetings, the PowerPoints, strategy workshops. Sometimes, it may seem that we do them to avoid doing “real work”. And yes, most organisations could probably benefit from fewer meetings and fancy PowerPoints. However, if you’re building a team that has never existed before, communicating your plan is very important (and it doesn’t have to be a very fancy PowerPoint).

When faced with: “Let’s see how long this new team is going to last at a bank”, we had to be prepared.

Your freshly-minted team will also benefit from knowing you have a masterplan.

Only when people know where they’re going, will they’ll have the perseverance and passion to achieve long-term goals. The people you hire won’t be joining a well-oiled machine but a barely-functioning contraption. So perseverance is one thing they’ll need.

UX maturity at DBS Consumer Banking

We’re at number four now, but we still have some way to go when it comes to UX maturity at DBS.

№3: Rock the boat

Once you’ve built a strong foundation, it’s time to test its strength. Up until 2017, we were mostly operating in reactive mode — focusing on parity and executing requests from the business. But a team like ours is capable of more — we had to become proactive.

Our first step towards proactively suggesting new features and products was the five-star rating. In May 2016, we changed the lengthy feedback page to a simple five-star rating system. The response has been amazing. The feedback we received jumped from around 30,000 comments a month to more than 1,000,000+ comments a month.

Move from an unfriendly feedback form to a super easy star rating.

To me, it proves that an in-house design team is the way to go. Outsourcing design can have good results, but this approach has its limits.

Outsourced teams simply don’t have the power to be proactive or to fight back when they feel there is a better solution out there. They also don’t know the product as well as in-house teams.

One band, one sound

One of our 2018 creative days —photo by Bady

Building a team goes hand-in-hand with building a relationship with your stakeholders. Simply put, no one is going to let you hire 50+ designers if they don’t think you’re delivering value. We’ve actually been very lucky in that respect. Sandeep Lal, our Head of Digital, has been extremely supportive. The following are his words, not mine, so it’s not bragging :)

The design team brings creativity and reveals perspectives we might not have thought of. — Sandeep Lal

What’s next? Having a large and capable design team I can trust 100% means I can spend more time focusing on the design community.

Perhaps one day we will have a DBS Design Academy 🎓

If you want to know more about us, take a look at our other stories 📜 and open roles 👇

Written by Chooake Wongwattanasilpa, Managing Director of User Experience & Design at DBS Bank. Edited by Liva, our first UX Writer. This post appears on the DBS Design blog. Our design team is currently 1) helping business leaders realise their visions 2) delivering what customers really need 3) partnering with technology to build a flexible & long-term service platform. And gradually iterating to innovate. 😅



Chooake Wongwattanasilpa
DBS Design

Chief Experience Officer @Bank of Singapore; former Chief Design Officer @DBS Bank; @PayPal Asia-Pacific; @Motorola Devices, @Morningstar Inc.