A word from the CEO: Looking back on 2019

6 min read Amberlie Denny

Hello! It’s been a while – a whole year in fact – since I personally shared an update on what’s going on at Optimal Workshop (OW). This year has been yet another story of growth and adaptation for us.

For those of us living at the edge of the world down here in New Zealand it can be pretty easy to distance ourselves from what’s going on in the rest of the world. So I’d like to take a moment to glance widely before we focus on everyday life and product here at OW.

A new reality

One of the first things that occurs to me as I think about the world we live in is the book A New Reality. In it, authors Jonas and Jonathan Salk discuss changes we’re experiencing in the apparent values of people in society, the inevitable conflicts that arise, and where these trends might be headed. This is all illustrated using an S-curve as a thinking tool. It’s a hopeful, clever and easy read and it has me thinking about how we (as UXers) might help people to better understand and appreciate one another’s contexts, needs and values.

A more intimate understanding of behaviour and motivation seems intuitively good for business and for humanity at large. Over time, a consequence of this might be to reduce tensions and settle at a preferable societal plateau. Indeed, one of the reasons we do what we do here at OW is to help people and organizations to see things through the eyes of others; it is insufficient to only know WHAT is happening, to see new possibilities we must seek to understand WHY.

For you and I, folks working hard to make products and services that are a better fit for the real needs of people who use them, we find ourselves riding multiple waves of change at once. Technical advances, evolving business practices, and societal expectations all impact the work we do. We often apply our skills to improve the health of software, a digital creature that sheds its skin seasonally, with devices that last only a few years, on paradigms forever in question, with problems that the algorithms are coming to eat, and for people who update their expectations faster than they change their passwords. I love it.

The field of UX is still relatively young, even if it’s roots are not, and UX practitioners have been known to build metaphorical bridges between organizational departments. UX often becomes the glue between silos. This too is evolving, as more organizations realize the benefits of working in smaller, multidisciplinary teams. So what happens now; when doing is considered learning, and while learning is often not considered doing?

How might we, you and I in our respective contexts, contribute to better collective decision-making in 2020?

Forever evolving

We released some exciting improvements to Optimal Workshop this year. To name a few, we finally have branching logic in Questions, a 3D cluster view in OptimalSort, and you can now use multiple participant screening questions for any study.

The biggest improvement though has been a near-complete “underhaul” of the user and accounts systems for Optimal Workshop. Probably not as exciting for you as it is for me, and barely visible, this work lays new foundations for the way UXers work in the real world. You’ll see more effects of this work shining through in 2020, and here’s a couple of relevant sparkles to brighten your day already:

First up, earlier this year we opened up Reframer to guest notetakers. You can now bring guests into usability tests and user interviews to contribute notes and observations directly into Reframer. As we’ve observed before, much of the real work is convincing others of the importance of user research, and getting someone to be a guest notetaker is a great way to start. Secondly, as a partial response to a round of usability testing and months of contextual inquiry, we’ve changed our studies overview page to make it easier to see what’s really going on for you and your team in OW.

Practice what we preach

UX practice at its heart is about empathy, continuous learning, hypothesizing bravely and checking our own bias and assumptions rigorously. These practices have become an integral part of how we work at OW.

When Optimal Workshop was smaller, we had researchers answering questions from our wider team. This year our designers, researchers and product managers made it their collective mission to empower teams to find answers to their questions for themselves. We’ve done this by encouraging a UX research mindset and supporting it with a set of workflow practices.

We are getting better at continuously integrating the things we learn into our plans. For example, while updating the studies overview page we learned a lot about the role of UX in modern delivery teams and how we might support it into the future for teams very big – and very small. This new knowledge now fuels multiple streams of upcoming work.

While our researchers are busy uncovering customer trends and sharing insights, our designers are doing more exploration and evaluation than ever before. It is reassuring to see that our own team is enthusiastically using our own tools to understand and communicate what we learn.

UX New Zealand

We took a break from the excitement and rigors of running our conference in 2018. This year though, UX New Zealand was back bigger and better than ever. We saw a record number of attendees, speakers from all over the world and some really interesting workshops covering a huge range of topics. Particular highlights for me personally included getting to see one of our very own data scientists stand up and deliver a spectacular talk, as well as catching up with many friends from the UX community at home and abroad.

If you didn’t get the chance to attend this year, please stay tuned for announcements on the future of UX New Zealand. I hope to see you at the next one!

Out and about at international conferences

Whether for ongoing individual learning or to run the OW booth at an industry event, many of us visited other cities around the world in 2019. I personally ventured over (in just the one trip; gotta keep those long haul emissions to a minimum) to events in Paris, Amsterdam, Bristol and London, our sales and customer success folk were in many more places around Europe and the USA, and representatives from our product tribe were in Australia, Japan, Canada and also in the USA. We make an effort to be present and listening wherever customers gather and where good ideas are planted.

Obviously, we can’t all be everywhere though, so we bring back things we’ve seen and heard and share our insights and ideas (and chocolate) with our team at HQ in Wellington, NZ.

Our new home in Wellington

After a long wait, while the building was strengthened and refurbished, we moved into a beautiful new office space in October. We’re now headquartered in the Paramount Theatre building on Courtenay Place. It’s got plenty of space for us to continue to grow into, not to mention a sunny lounge with a balcony and even several homages to the historical building. If you’re ever in Wellington, please let us know and we’ll show you around.

Well, that about wraps it up for my end of year update – we’re now off for a well-deserved break. We can’t wait to come back in 2020 refreshed, recharged and ready to keep making our suite of tools the best it can be – the place where you find signals in the noise. After all, we want to help you create meaningful digital experiences!

All the best.

Andrew Mayfield