Wellington hipsters Optimal Workshop reach $10m turnover advising Uber, GE, IBM

Wellington’s Optimal Workshop has quietly become one of the world’s leading companies for making websites easier to use – or improving the “UX” (for “user experience”) as it’s known in the biz.

The consultancy has grown by 50 per cent per year since it was founded in 2010, with revenue hitting $10 million last year.

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Chief executive Andrew Mayfield says more than half of Fortune 500 companies, including Uber, IBM and General Electric now use Optimal Workshop tools.

All up, there are now 350,000 Optimal Workshop accounts spread among users in more than 132 countries.

The firm has doubled staff to 62 since 2018, and Mayfield says numbers should top 100 by this time next year on its current hiring trajectory.

And the Herald understands the board is mulling a raise that could run to $10m, which could accelerate hiring further. A marketing team is not high on the agenda, however. Mayfield says his company is growing just fine through good word-of-mouth.

“Personally, I much prefer inbound as a marketing model. I’m not looking to become a SaaS blowfly. We don’t bother people, but we’re there when they need us.”

As things stand, the company is owned by managers and various individual investors, including founder Sam Ng and Spotlight Reporting founder Richard Francis – who are part of a group with a one-third stake, the largest holding. Francis made his fortune selling his first startup, Spotlight Workpapers, to Xero in 2013.

Ng founded the company in 2008, after leaving Kiwibank where he was “propositional lead” or leading a kind of skunkworks – or an inhouse “startup” group whose mission was to create disruptive ventures.

Improving “UX” has often been a brute-force exercise, involving a lot of A/B testing of different designs. One group of users to your website sees Design A, the other Design B, and you track how each group navigates the site, and how long they stay, etc.

Optimal Workshop’s approach revolves, in part around quick-fire surveys that ask people (virtually or in real-life) why they use a website, and the features they want to see – and which they want to see first, and so forth.

A client won’t get advice about using giant blocks of colour, but they might get a suggestion for making a key piece of text more understandable, or lifting a key feature or piece of information higher up a site.

Optimal Workshop recruits the user panels, to criteria set by the client, and stores results from various UX surveys and exercises in the cloud as “one source of truth” for a customer.

The crux of its approach is to combine qualitative and quantitative research on its platform. Its “Treejack” tool, for example, lets people sort virtual cards to prioritise what they want to see from a website and where, while its “Chalkmark” or “first-click testing” tool gives fast feedback on whether people understand how to navigate an actual site or prospective design and, equally or more importantly, the way information is worded and ordered. Helping to make language as unambiguous as possible is a key.

BNZ and Vodafone NZ were early customers, then multinationals piled in including huge names like Bank of America, Facebook, CNN, BBC, Nokia, Intel and National Geographic.

Then in 2018, it was time to pass to baton. “As the technical demands of the business grew, I promoted the chief technology officer [Mayfield] to CEO and stepped aside to pursue my personal interests in international development,” Ng said.

Ng joined the World Food Programme as an adviser to the UN agency’s “Innovation Accelerator” scheme, then in March 2020 became the UN Development Programme’s digital innovation lead.

Back in Wellington, Mayfield grappled with the first wave of lockdowns as the pandemic hit. “We lost some smaller customers but gained some larger ones,” the CEO says.

But overall, after the brief shock of the first few weeks, the outbreak has seen Optimal Workshop expand faster, as has been the case for so many in the tech sector, as the virus accelerated companies’ efforts to move as many of their operations as possible online.

“We’re a remote working tool, of sorts,” Mayfield says.

His company’s surveys of current or prospective users can be done in person or – particularly if it’s en masse – remotely.

And he pitches Optimal Workshop as pandemic friendly, and friendly to organisations’ budgets in general, in that its tools have “dramatically reduced costs” compared to more conventional UX testing, and allowed clients to test with hundreds of thousands of users in days rather than weeks.

And the age of Zoom has also led Mayfield to reassess business travel.

“I’ve missed it in a sense, but I’ve also discovered how much was unnecessary,” he says.

“I used to find myself on a plane to the US every month, but it could be once a quarter, or less, once border restrictions ease.”

Optimal Workshop's six tips to get more people scanning posters:

Low poster-scanning rates have been a pain point with NZ’s Covid response.

Optimal Workshop CEO Andrew Mayfield recently offered small business owners six tips to get more customers whipping out their phones.

1. Follow your customers’ behaviour. You know better than anyone how your customers operate, so use that knowledge for good.

Do you have a restaurant that caters for parents distracted by kids? Maybe you need QR codes at the tables for when they have settled in, rather than only at the door where they might be juggling kids and items.

Do you have customers who use wheelchairs? Maybe you need QR codes at different height levels.

2. Think about light. Make sure there’s enough light around the QR code, so that phones of different resolution and camera qualities are able to scan in.

If you’re typically open just during the day, this might mean putting it somewhere with all-day sun, or if you’re an indoor establishment, then somewhere that gets consistent good lighting.

The longer people take to scan in, the less likely they are to finish the job.

3. Use visual cues. Sometimes the Covid-19 scanning poster just ain’t enough to convince people to do the deed. Place a friendly sign to encourage visitors to sign in via the Covid app, using language you know will resonate with them.

Other visual cues such as hand sanitisers and Covid hygiene safeguards also make useful reminders about the importance of scanning in, without having to directly pressure your visitors.

4. Get creative. At the Optimal Workshop office, where we have up to 60 employees coming in and out every day, we know that some of the time they might have forgotten to sign in at the door.

To stop this becoming a problem, our office experience manager sends out the QR code via Slack, our main internal communication platform, three to four times per week, as a reminder to scan if employees haven’t already done so. This minor change has coincided with an uptick in sign-in rates for employees.

5. Laminate. If your poster is going to be exposed to the elements, laminating makes sense. Otherwise, please leave lamination to your eat, pray, love posters. The plastic on laminated QR codes may cause glare which makes the code hard to scan.

6. Iterate. “Iterate” is a fancy way of saying repeat things, until you achieve what you’re after. Sometimes the best way to test if a solution is working is to just try it out, monitor it and iterate based on what you find.

If you notice your QR code placement is causing a choke point in the store, try moving it to a different location, observe how that works for a few hours, and then you can make a next decision from there.

You can also try this out yourself, by pretending to be a customer. Walk through the place of business like you’re a customer visiting for the first time. Put yourself in their shoes and see how the experience is to sign in with the QR code.

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