Speaking with DBS Bank’s first UX engineer

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Edison Chee is our very first front-end/web engineer addition to our Design Language Standards (DLS) team here at DBS Bank.

Part-designer part-developer, Edison aims to bridge the gap between the design and tech teams. We got the opportunity to speak to him to find out more about his role here at DBS, and to get some tips for aspiring UX designers and engineers.

Hi Edison, can you briefly introduce yourself?

Hey! I’m a designer, developer, geek and part-time snorlax based in Singapore. I fell in love with visual arts @ NTU and majored in Visual Communication, but my penchant for tinkering got me into web development and now, computer science.

How long have you been with us here at DBS?

Still very fresh — 5 months in!

What is your favourite thing about working here at DBS?

The DLS team itself — plenty of autonomy, outcome-based decision making, high-functioning and -performing team members.

And what is your least favourite thing?

That the UXD team is based in the Changi office, while I stay all the way in the west at Ghim Moh ☹️.

What do you like to do outside of work/in your free time?

I love reading, learning and tinkering. These are the most consistent things I’ve come to realise about myself the more I reflect on how I spend my time. Aside from a couple of core interests (design and coding) that I always return to, my interests tend to change quite often:

2016–2018: Rock Climbing, Hackintosh

2019–2020: Computer Science, Machine Learning, Physical x Digital interaction design

2020–2021: Live streaming, video content creation, cooking, reverse engineering

As our only DBS UX Engineer, I think people might not necessarily have the clearest picture of what your job scope is. Can you explain what you do here at DBS?

I aim to bridge the gaps between design and tech teams. Design teams and tech teams usually speak with different jargon, have different preferred tools and workflows, and ideally I’m here to reduce the friction between these two teams.

Designers and developers sometimes feel like they speak in different languages. A UX engineer helps these teams better understand each other’s needs.

What do you think tends to be issues common in design teams that do not have a dedicated UX engineer?

These are a couple of issues that I think are common in smaller design teams, but really get magnified and become a significant problem in a bigger organisations, namely:

Death by a thousand cuts

  • Inconsistent naming conventions within and across teams (e.g., Calendar vs DatePicker, SelectionControl vs Radio vs CheckBox, Stepper vs ProgressStepper)

The difficulty of maintaining and keeping relevant a mature design system:

  • “Which guideline should I refer to?”, “Is it the latest one?”, “Why is this different from the other one?”, “This doesn’t fit my use case, can you tweak it?”

Poor discoverability of tools and components

  • “What are other teams doing to solve this problem?”, “What did they learn?”, “They had a similar problem but mine is just slightly different… I think we need to build a new component.”

As an organisation grows larger and our range of products increases, it becomes ever more crucial that a design system goes beyond just being a static set of guidelines.

What this means is that the design system needs active pruning, maintenance, enhancements and fixing, ensuring that it remains relevant and applicable across our multiple products and use-cases.

That’s where I think a dedicated UX Engineer could come in here, and it’s mostly horizontal work as part of a centralised team.

What’s one thing you wish non-UX engineers would understand better about your work?

The work that goes into improving processes, workflow and tooling doesn’t always translate to immediate profit, and value of doing so sometimes takes awhile to be realised and appreciated. Hence, a lot of the work I do here can feel invisible, and at times, discouraging.

So I understand you originally kick-started your career as a UI designer. Did you always plan to move into this “UX Engineer” role? What did you do to prepare for such a transition?

Okay, so this is going to be a long story.

In my second year of design school, I got frustrated with not being able to express my ideas with just static images or mockups during design critique sessions. And because of that, I decided to teach myself coding so I could flesh out and communicate my ideas in a more interactive way.

The road was an incredibly bumpy one because fundamental concepts were not easy to grasp, and I actually gave up quite a few times. I decided to take a leap of faith and commit to coding by taking two entire semesters of web development in my final year and finish my final year project with a “hand-coded” website, which meant also having to pick up HTML, CSS, JS and basic shared hosting.

It was a huge thing because out of 80 students in design-centric course, only two of us went down this “tech route”. Everyone else was focusing on graphic, editorial, packaging, installation and conceptual designs, etc.

If I’m being honest, it felt like I was going in the opposite direction of everyone, and that can be quite nerve-wrecking.

Thankfully, the investment paid off, and I managed to land a design + web dev job in a small design firm right out of university. I got worked to the bone, and frequently ended work in the wee hours of the morning, only to start again first thing at 7 AM.

Having to wear multiple hats in small design firm also meant sometimes having to work till 3 in the morning.

I’m not saying that’s the best working environment, but it turned out to be a fantastic opportunity and experience, and confirmed my own interest in coding and to hone my front-end development skills.

Ever since then, I’ve always tried to put myself into situations where I would have opportunities to code despite having design as my main responsibility. For example:

  • I learned Angular in 2015 and took on extra tasks to build components for a web app back in DSTA.
  • In GDS, I threw myself into a project as a solo developer where I learned and built a React web app. Managed to deliver it on time and below budget.
  • I later joined a newly formed off-site product team as a UX designer, where I had even more opportunities to code my designs since they lacked headcount. I got to build even more React components (and eventually a small design system) for the product.
  • I also ended up learning and doing backend development so I could build prototypes that needed data persistence.

Carving out these opportunities and experiences for myself meant that I continually had to prove that I knew what I was doing. Developers are generally nervous about letting designers come close to their code. Again, this many times felt like an uphill battle.

Along the way, I saw a lot of discourse on “whether designers should code” on the internet, and roles like that of a ‘UX Engineer’ were practically unheard of. I think this only strengthened my resolve to try and find something in this direction, where I could explore and expand upon my interests in both design and tech.

I doubled down and began learning fundamental computer science concepts to further strengthen my technical skills.

So when the opportunity for it came up in DBS, it was a no-brainer — I jumped right into it!

That’s an awesome life story. So you’ve got about 8 years of experience under your belt. What advice can you give to fledgling UI/UX designers, who might want to explore a similar career trajectory?

My advice for new UI/UX designers is that it probably feels comfortable to grow in skills like UX research and prototyping with tools like Figma. And you’re absolutely right—I mean after all, it’s your bread and butter. It’s immediately relevant to your job, and produces tangible things that can be appraised fairly easily, and also it’s what hiring managers look for as a baseline.

But at some point in time, you want to go beyond that.

Pay attention to and invest in skills that allow you to navigate muddier problems with less immediate solutions.

Life isn’t just going to be straightforward design briefs. You’ll need to build on skills like making sense of data points, framing problems, and how to learn better. Developing a diverse skillset beyond UX/interface design is going to help you tackle the bigger, more complex issues.

Where do you see yourself in a year?

Still in DBS, hopefully having raised the bar for UX Engineering.

And where do you see yourself in 5 years?

No freaking idea! 😄

Learn more about Edison and his work here, or say hello at DBS Design.

Speaking with DBS Bank’s first UX engineer was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.