PhD Graduate Dr Channa WITANA


From Designing Products to Experiences
Dr. Channa WITANA Excels in Transformative Career

Dr. Channa WITANA has enjoyed a progressive career that has transcended academia to industry, Asia to Europe, and the design of products to UX.
Dr. Channa WITANA has enjoyed a progressive career that has transcended academia to industry, Asia to Europe, and the design of products to UX.

With the integration of mobile applications and computer software into our daily lives comes a greater emphasis on user-friendly designs that add value to products or services. Currently working in the automotive industry in innovating user experience (UX), Dr. Channa WITANA, a PhD graduate from the Department of Industrial Engineering and Decision Analytics at HKUST, has enjoyed a progressive career that has transcended academia to industry, Asia to Europe, and the design of products to UX.

As Senior Manager of UX Design at Garrett Motion Inc., Channa manages a team of designers with members across the UK, Romania and India in supporting the creation of mobile apps and web-based interfaces for a world leading automotive tech company based in Switzerland. “An ideal UX should be intuitive to the users, steering them through the user interface with ease. By putting yourself in their shoes, you are in position to strike a balance between design and practicality. There is always room to improve our offerings for the customers and employees,” he explains.

Fostering UX culture

When he took up this role in 2013, Channa’s first challenge was to educate the organization about UX. “Since it was a relatively new discipline at that time, I had to convince the top management of its real benefits. Through specific workshops for colleagues and couple of successful pilot projects, I was able to embed a UX design culture into the business process.”

One of these strategies is to hold weekly meetings where his staff take turns to make half-hour presentations on their work and invite constructive criticism from teammates. The intention is to encourage creativity and, more importantly, identify possible design issues and fix them as early as possible.

Channa has also benefited from peer reviews during his PhD studies. Faculty members from the same department jointly hosted regular seminars for research students to share their findings for critique. “I really appreciate how much I have learned from these exchanges.” 

“My motto in life is ‘Make it simple’, although it is the most difficult thing to actually do. A good UX should guide people through the application. The designer must innovate by being empathetic and ask how to make things intuitive from the users’ viewpoint.”

Finding the right fit

In recalling his decision to study at HKUST, Channa revealed he originally enrolled for an MPhil and planned to move on to Europe or the US for his doctoral degree. “When I made the application, my only knowledge of Hong Kong was Bruce LEE,” Channa says laughing. But upon his arrival, he knew it was the right move. “HKUST has state-of-the-art equipment to support my research, and the library provides access to an incredible wealth of resources.” 

In his first semester in 2001, Channa created a walking simulator that changes gait patterns, temperature and pace to test different footwear. This impressed Prof. Ravindra GOONETILLEKE, who invited him to start on his PhD in ergonomics and human factors right away and embark on various projects that marry his background in mechanical engineering to newfound interest in product design. Together, they invented a device called “Profile Assessment Device” that can develop personalized high heel shoes, and several other devices and methods to measure foot shapes.

His consistency in applying knowledge to new scenarios has given Channa the confidence to succeed in the industry. “My first job in Shanghai was to lead the adaptation of the company’s personal protective gear, like helmets, boots and safety devices, from American to Asian sizes and shapes. I helped the company to build an ergonomics lab and trained the engineers to adopt a research mindset,” he recalls. This invaluable experience also expanded his horizons in designing products and software, eventually shaping his career as it has become today.

“When you start working in a new environment, always be humble and empathetic. Learn from other people’s experiences and understand why they do things in a particular way. When you apply skillsets and intelligence to build on their wealth of knowledge, you earn their respect and create real value for your work.”

Giving back for greater good

With vast exposure in different parts of the world, Channa is contributing his expertise in UX to ezDOC, for creating a digital patient management system in Sri Lanka. “It digitizes healthcare to connect patients, doctors and dispensaries on a single platform. I hope to modernize the primary healthcare in my home country and improve quality of life for the ordinary,” he concludes with pride.