Interview with Andrew Mayfield, CEO of UX Research Firm Optimal Workshop
This is one in the continuing series of interviews with UX and Usability thought-leaders. This series focuses on bringing you up close and personal to individuals in our industry who are responsible for moving user experience, usability and design in a new and exciting direction.
Andrew Mayfield is the CEO of Optimal Workshop. Optimal Workshop provides a variety of UX and usability research tools designed to quickly and efficiently gather large amounts of user input for data-driven design decisions.
Q1. What’s your background? Where did you go to school, what subjects interested you?
I live in Wellington, New Zealand. I’ve wanted to run a business since I was twelve. In primary school I sold computer games to the other kids at school, creating catalogues using MS Paint and placing orders through my father’s computer rental business. And I studied accounting, computer science, marketing, and e-commerce at Victoria University in Wellington.
Q2. How did you get into usability and the UX testing field?
I started a software company with a good friend in 2002. Neither of us had UX experience but we thought it made good sense to watch people using the software that we built. So we tutored a class at university together, and for 5 minutes at the end of our weekly tutorials we’d show our students what we’d been working on and give them a task to complete.
Then we just watched and took notes. We learned so much from doing this that I wondered at the time — and wonder still — how anyone ever designs anything useful without user research. It was years before I realized that what we were doing was so very rare.
Q3. What is it about UX and usability that you most enjoy, or find most rewarding?
I love working in UX and usability because it seems to attract a lot of other people who want to do right by those they’re designing for. Good people with good intentions abound.
It’s also great knowing that the work you do will save so many people from needless confusion and frustration because our research ensures they’ll actually find what they’re looking for — and enjoy the experience too.
Plus it’s good business, and good fun.
Q4. You are the CEO for the usability and UX research service Optimal Workshop, what was the inspiration for developing it?
All of the user research tools we’ve built are inspired by the needs of our consulting team at Optimal Experience (now part of PwC). We needed tools for doing more user research, more quickly, and more comprehensively. Thus, Optimal Workshop was born.
We’ve grown since then (more people, more tools), but our ethos has been the same the whole time: we want to create a world in which people don’t have to feel lost, confused, or frustrated while trying to find and do things online or when using digital products.
All the things in all the right places, essentially.
Q5. As a business owner and UX leader, what do you find were pitfalls with creating your business and finding clients interested in usability testing?
If the globe had a corner, New Zealand would be it. It’s both good and bad being so far away from everywhere. Good because it means we have to be exceptional at practicing the remote research techniques that we preach, and bad because we spend a lot of time in the air when we want to connect with people (though that doesn’t stop us).
I haven’t had any trouble finding people who are interested in usability testing, even people who don’t call it that. Pretty much everyone I’ve met is interested in having a more effective website, intranet, or app.
Q6. Optimal Workshop contains several tools including a content tree testing tool (Treejack), a card sorting tool (OptimalSort), a first click analysis tool (Chalkmark), and a qualitative research tool (Reframer). Why these particular tools, what was the reason for creating them?
All our tools were built as solutions to problems we saw designers grappling with all the time.
We built OptimalSort, our card sorting tool, because our enterprise consulting clients wanted to see bigger numbers in our research. This made a lot of sense to us: when it comes to making decisions based on user research, it’d be difficult for any company with 5 million customers to trust data from 5 people. So rather than fight against a culture of evidence based decision making, we built a tool designed to support it.
OptimalSort was built as a tool for quick remote card sorting, and efficient quantitative analysis. We’ve since added features to support qualitative insight gathering too, not least of which is the ability to print out the cards and do your card sorts the way it used to be done, on paper and in person, and to scan the cards back in for analysis.
Treejack came next. We coined the term ‘tree testing’ to capture a method pioneered by Donna Spencer, known then as ‘card based classification testing’. At first, we thought Treejack was ideal for validating the choices you make after conducting a card sort. But we now think the best approach is to benchmark your design with tree testing at the start of a project, to compare and rank different options against each other, and find out where the problems actually are so you can focus your next steps.
We built Chalkmark after research was published on the critical importance of first clicks in a person’s task success: an 87% task success rate for people who got the first click correct, compared 46% for those who did not. We wanted a tool that would effectively measure first clicks in response to tasks — and now it’s an indispensable tool for lots of people. Great to see!
Our latest addition to the Optimal Workshop suite is Reframer, a tool for collecting and analyzing observer notes from user research. Project teams can take notes during user tests and user interviews, add tags before and after sessions, explore relationships between observations alongside each other, spot themes quickly and easily, and so on. It’s in beta, and so far people are loving it.
Q7. Usability and UX researchers have a lot of tools to choose from, why Optimal Workshop?
Optimal Workshop’s tools are a joy to use—our primary differentiator will be your experience using them. Somewhat surprisingly, I’m quite sure you won’t hear this about most of the other options available. Of course we have all the features you need for effective tree testing, card sorting, first-click testing and observer note-taking.
The results you get from an Optimal Workshop study will be beautiful and ready to show to your stakeholders in a format they can understand and enjoy.
Our customer support is second to none. You can run studies in any of 70 languages and we can help you recruit quality participants. You’ll be in very good company with many of the the biggest enterprises and the smartest researchers in the world.
Q8. When you think about the changes to usability and UX over the past 2-3 years, what do you think the next 2 to 3 years has in store? What may be the ‘next big thing’ in your opinion?
People will stop thinking UX is special. The terminology is starting to settle, the taxonomists have almost finished arguing, and the jargon is becoming commonplace.
UX is really just considerate design.
Users are people. If this is true, then UX is design for people. As UX practitioners we know this already, of course, but the rest of the world is realizing there is no secret sauce too. Anyone can make a product better through research and design.
Everyone is doing it. And if they’re not, in 2-3 years they will be.
Q9. What’s next for you personally in your career, and for Optimal Workshop in the next year or two, what would you like to focus on?
Optimal Workshop has an exciting roadmap ahead, with new features and new products laid out as far as I can see. We also have a couple of fun R&D initiatives involving robotics and the psychology of emotion going on at the moment too. Stay tuned on our blog to hear about whether anything comes from these projects.
Personally, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the role of design, and how best to involve user research in projects involving real world objects and experiences over time that may or may not involve screens and/or what we traditionally think of as computers and phones. I’m interested in finding actionable answers to questions like:
- What things are too difficult, expensive or tedious for user researchers and experience designers?
- What about projects involving the internet of things (IoT), bio-computing, personal manufacturing, and robotics?
- How can we ensure this new world is better than the last?
Q10. Finally, what advice do you have for those who want to get into the usability and UX field?
Jump on in. You can do it. One of the most exciting things about this young industry is that so many people come from such different backgrounds. This brings a wealth of perspective and a rich diversity of practice.
Everyone here is trying to make an aspect of the world better for the people in it, in their own way. You’ll meet some amazing people, both the users you’re working for, and the peers you’re working with. Welcome!
Thank you Andrew!
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