Optimal Usability: Pursuing world class customer experience

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Trent Mankelow (@trentmankelow) is Co-founder and CEO of New Zealand-based user experience consultancy Optimal Usability (@OptimalNZ). Since 2002 Optimal Usability have only gotten bigger and better and here Trent share’s with Design Transitions his company’s story, the heart of its practice and how he believes that in the future, designers need to focus on change, storytelling and being better business people.

Could you tell us about Optimal Usability’s story?
It’s nice to step back now and think about how our journey seems all planned out, but at the beginning it certainly wasn’t. Horizon One for us was Optimal Usability, which is a user experience company based here in New Zealand with 20 staff which we started in late 2002. Most of what we did was observational research but we very quickly moved on to design and strategy work. That’s the engine today, with 200-plus clients in New Zealand.

Horizon Two for us was Australia. New Zealand has 4 million people and in Australia there are 22 million, so by virtue of the market size that was the next horizon for us. We started there in early 2008. We were approached by Susan Wolfe who was ex-Managing Director of the Hiser Group, who were influential in starting user-centred design in Australasia. She approached us and asked if we were interested in doing something together.

The third horizon was our products company, Optimal Workshop. We wanted to build products from  the very start, because there is a limit to how much impact we can have in the world, being located in New Zealand and running a consultancy company where there is a ceiling to how many hours you can bill. Optimal Workshop was created off the back of a card sorting tool we created for a client in 2005. And the reason why we built that tool was simply because there was a need. We had to do a specific piece of research and the tools out there at the time didn’t give us what we wanted. So we built this card sorting tool, and one thing led to another and in 2007 we made the decision to create a separate company. Optimal Workshop is our Third Horizon in the sense that it has thousands of users and its customer base is truly global. The kind of customers we have for Optimal Workshop include Bank of America, BBC, Nokia etc. so it’s a global brand and that’s really exciting. Andrew Mayfield is the CEO of that company.

Could you expand on Optimal Usability’s design practices, and why you do what you do?
We started the company because we were a bit pissed off… I don’t know if that’s the best reason to start a company but that’s what we did…At the time, my co-founder Sam and I both worked for a giant IT services company called Unisys. They would spend a lot of money on developing cutting edge telephony applications, but nothing on making sure that those applications worked for people. I remember once, one of the developers needed to test some of the back end stuff so he went home on the weekend and he put together a test website, which he built with Microsoft Frontpage, if you remember that. But that interface that he designed on the weekend was what we shipped with. I couldn’t believe that there were companies out there creating products for people without thinking for a second who these people were – their goals, characteristics, context.

We started the company with a focus on user research. In 2002, we weren’t thinking of ourselves as designers. But our clients kept asking us if we couldn’t skip a step, and bake usability in from the beginning by doing the interaction design ourselves. And really from then we started hiring designers.

Our design practice is very much user-centred with a focus on co-design. We don’t do design that’s not user-centered and our philosophy is that everyone can help define and solve design problems. Our role in a design workshop is as a facilitator to pull designs from our clients’ heads.

What else drives your design practices? What are the current drivers of change?
Drivers are the complex problems in domains that we aren’t familiar with. For example we do design research for Fisher and Paykel healthcare on sleep apnea face masks. We’re not clinicians, or people who understand the science of sleep. We are pitching for some work at the moment for deep sea sonar equipment, and likewise we don’t know what it’s like to go out and fish in the North Atlantic. These are all domains that we aren’t familiar with. But that’s part of why think co-design is so important.

The other thing is around transformation. Our vision is to transform our clients into providers of world class customer experiences. I think the well understood bit is the ‘world class customer experience’, and the real work is in transforming these large organisations. This is why we’re so hot on storytelling.

What excites you about design at the moment?
The concept that everyone is a designer.
For example, 216,000 New Zealanders fell in their homes in 2010. The societal and economic impact of those falls was NZ$1.8 billion. ACC spent a lot of money on social marketing campaigns, but it made very little difference to the number of people falling in their homes.

So they ran a nationwide innovation programme that involved 100 of their staff and 80 members of the public. The 200-odd people got together in forums all over the country, and came up with several hundred ideas of which I think 28 went through to next phase. And then they ran a nation-wide ideas competition and had 600 more ideas come through the website. Now ACC is going to push forward with some of those ideas to validate them, refine them and develop them. So the question is, who the designer in this process? And who is the customer?

Designing to understand is another thing that we are seeing more and more of in organisations. For example, New Zealand Post, like most postal organisations around the world, are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year on their retail network because fewer of us are sending letters. So they are doing lots of research and asking interesting questions like ‘what if you didn’t have a mailbox at the end of your driveway anymore? What would the world look like?’ They then articulate the results of that by drawing, by designing. So that sort of stuff is exciting.

What do you think the future of design practices is going to look like?
I think it’s going to be more about change management, and storytelling to support that change
. When Air New Zealand designed the SkyCouch, they did it in a big warehouse in Auckland. But once the project was over, they still kept ‘Hangar 9’ going for another year or two, and they used the space to host anyone who was interested in their innovation process. They ran all sorts of events there. So I think that idea of storytelling is pretty exciting. I’m not just talking about videos, but about physical artifacts that can tell stories. Air New Zealand certainly used that warehouse, with its fake Boeing 777 fuselage, as a storytelling artifact.

One of my big bug bears for a long time is that, certainly in the usability space, there are no big usability firms in the world. Even the Neilsen Norman group which is one of the more well-known ones has got maybe a dozen people. There are very few people who care as much about the business of what we do as the craft. And I say this to be deliberately provocative – there’s not enough of an impact when designers are poor business people. We have a responsibility to society to be better business people.

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