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Emerging jobs in design: design coach, principal UX designer and design researcher

13 min read

So, you know you want to pursue a career in design. But you don’t really know, exactly, what role you’d like to take. Fret not. Last year, DesignSingapore Council joined forces with SkillsFuture Singapore and Workforce Singapore to develop the Skills Framework for Design, a handy booklet that provides useful information on design sector that includes career pathways, occupation and job roles, existing and emerging skills, and training and programmes for skills upgrading. Sounds neat?

In the booklet are 25 emerging new jobs that we will need more in the future. In this article, we ask three design professionals what it means to be a design coach, a principal UX designer and design researcher – plus, how you can be one too!

By Cheong Suk-Wai

What it takes to be a design coach 

Ryan Han began his career journey as an industrial designer at Creative Technology, where he enjoyed helping to shape its suite of webcams.

After leaving Creative in 2010, he went on to develop and teach a design thinking (DT) curriculum at the Institute of Technical Education, and helped set up SingHealth’s innovation team before joining DBS as a design coach in 2017 to shepherd its digital transformation efforts.

A design coach is nothing like a football coach – it is actually an advisor, mediator, trainer, facilitator and mentor rolled into one, says Ryan.

As design coaches, we were not the product owners, but we made product-making easier.

Ryan Han, Design Practitioner, Wildlife Reserves Singapore

In 2016, DBS’s CEO Piyush Gupta had led the bank to adopt a customer-focused, problem-solving approach, based on the principles of DT. Teams – throughout the bank – were charged to map customers journeys so as to empathise with customer concerns and to improve their experiences radically.

Design coaches became the in-house point persons on everything related to DT, particularly for novel financial products that DBS staff were devising. “As design coaches, we were not the product owners, but we made product-making easier,” he explains.

For a start, that involved introducing every employee, from the chief executive to administrative staff, to DT, which uses a strong user-centred approach to design products, services and experiences.

In fact, to his colleagues, Ryan was the next best thing to hearing from customers themselves, as Ryan was expected to relay the latter’s views to them. As he puts it: “My role was always to filter their efforts from a customer’s point of view in relation to whether the new financial product would be valuable to customers.”

A design coach is also a vital middleman between an organisation’s internal and external stakeholders. Ryan did so by floating his colleagues’ financial product ideas to existing customers, and then funnelling the latter’s feedback to his colleagues, sending them back to the drawing board, if needed.

Design coaches then reinforce DT within an organisation by getting senior management to solve a range of problems, periodically, using DT. These coaches also help the bosses strategise and plan how they can immerse the rest of their organisation in being user-centred.

At DBS, Ryan kept the C-suite apprised of the latest DT trends and insights; he was on hand at corporate retreats to ensure that any business directions the bank set squared with DT best practices.

In employing design thinking within an organisation, design coaches like Ryan are also on the lookout for opportunities to redesign the ways their colleagues work for greater productivity.

Ryan is now a design practitioner at Wildlife Reserves Singapore and part of the team involving in the ambitious mega-nature attraction in the works at Mandai featuring the new bird park, two new wildlife parks, eco-accommodation.

He says successful design coaches must be adept at adapting to team dynamics, which evolve all the time and vary from team to team. “You need to know the level of understanding of those you are speaking to,” he stresses. “You need to adjust to the context accordingly and in real time.”

What it takes to be a principal UX designer

Not long ago, Ignatius Ong and his son Elijah were at a public library hunting for a cookbook for the boy’s school project. They failed to locate the tome and had to buy a copy instead.

Their wild goose chase spurred Ignatius to devise an augmented reality-based smartphone app to help library-goers locate their desired books easily. Improving user experience (UX) is clearly a passion for the head of experience design agency Idean in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.

He shares that a principal UX designer, who sits at the top of the UX design totem pole in a design agency, has to be the team’s visionary and have a firm grasp of the big picture for each project they take on. 

“[The principal] no longer design just what’s in front of you,” he stresses, “but what is very much ahead of you – even before the client thinks of it.”

Having such foresight, as well as being deft at spotting patterns in existing and emerging business trends, is core to his job. So is guiding his clients to envision what the future of design would likely be, then charting a roadmap for them in line with that.

“The principal no longer design just what’s in front of you but what is very much ahead of you – even before the client thinks of it.

Ignatius Ong, Head of agency, Idean Southeast Asia & Hong Kong

The principal UX designer would also play a role in inspiring and engaging clients to envision the optimal user experience and gain their confidence and buy-in for the proposed solutions. To this end, he would share with clients the latest market trends and insights; explain why what he has envisioned is most effective; and assures clients that they are on the correct path. “That’s the value that you add as a more senior designer,” he says.

Successful design, he adds, is more about being able to sustain a delightful experience for customers than just creating that experience in the first place. He says: “Your client must be able to see the impact that your design has on actual customers or end users.”

For example, a big aviation company recently asked him to design an interactive system based on artificial intelligence (AI). Ignatius went one better, using AI to craft them an avatar – a la the computerised butler J.A.R.V.I.S of superhero Iron Man Tony Stark. “When customers can touch and speak to such an avatar, it becomes a different experience for them,” he notes. “They can see it transform and become animated and so get perspectives of what can be done with AI.”

Ignatius then stresses that those hoping to reach his level need to be as adept at communicating compellingly as they are at designing. He says: “If you cannot explain your vision, concept or design, whoever you are working for may not be able to understand the concepts and targets behind your design.”

What it takes to be a design researcher

A decade ago, Kajal Vatsa – who now runs her design consultancy Heist – was a brand strategist in an international advertising firm. Eventually, Kajal yearned to “create the product, and not just the branding around the product” as she realised that at times, it was a product and not its branding that needed fixing.

When she became one, her core focus was to help her designer colleagues grasp how customers interacted with the world, beyond products or services they were creating. “I had to understand not just what people were saying, but what they left unsaid,” she recalls.

The work of a design researcher begins when a client needs to solve a user problem or understand their customers. For example, a teleco company might brief her thus: “Our brand is well-loved but we don’t know enough about millenials to create products for them. Please help us understand them better so that we can meet their needs.”

If we can’t think of a human being whose life will be made better by a product we’ve made, we have to tell the client, ‘This is really cool but it’s not feeding what we heard from customers.’

Kajal Vatsa, Principal and Founder, Heist

Once the telco decides which user segment it wants to targets, her teams researches the right profile for interviews, for example, a millennial who is modernising his family business.

Upon securing suitable interviewees, she has deep discussions with them on their lives, hobbies, passions and dreams. Then they would get into how they use technology at home. “We play games to get them to open up and tell us their stories and even get them to keep diaries or take photographs,” she says. “We do different things to understand what their lives and motivations are – all in the context of what our client does.”

She and her team then discern patterns across multiple interviews. Unfiltered and unbiased, these form raw data to be analysed. 

The alumna of University of Leicester and Central St Martins stresses that to be a good design researcher, it’s not about what you study in university. Rather it’s about how curious you are and what you seek to learn. However, one has to have affinity for analysis and behavioural studies, as much of the work is centred on evaluating user feedback and synthesizing insights.

These insights then guide the team to think of solutions to best address customers’ problems. Occasionally, post launch, a client may request to track the impact on customers. Hence, design researchers need to develop meaningful metrics to assess the impact and performance of the products to continually gather customer feedback that are relayed back to the clients.

All told, Kajal points out that a design researcher articulates customers’ needs not just to fellow designers, but to their clients as well. She says: “If we can’t think of a human being whose life will be made better by a product we’ve made, we have to tell the client, ‘This is really cool but it’s not feeding what we heard from customers.’ ”


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Singapore’s highest honour for designers and designs across all disciplines
One of Asia’s premier design festivals that champions design thought leadership
National Design Centre