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New Zealand may have a design culture – without us even realising it.

Clue, people from west coast America at recent user-experience design conferences reckoned that the menus at a West Coast café were more thoughtful than their counterparts in New York.

Optimal Usability’s chief executive Trent Mankelow, who along with company colleagues attends up to 10 world design-oriented conferences a year, says that the quality of design work in New Zealand is the equal of anything in the world.

The Wellington and Auckland based 21-staff company are part of the creative team behind Air New Zealand’s about-to-be introduced Skycouch. The Air NZ project included testing and modifying a mocked up 777 flight deck in an Auckland warehouse; the result being a seating arrangement that allows economy class passengers to lie down flat during their flight.

The eight year old company has about 70% of its work in the web/internet arena, with a vision “to help transform our clients into world-class providers of customer experiences,” Mankelow says.

In other words, OU evaluates and improves the design and experience of products and services, and the way users interact with them.

Much of its work is hands on research, watching in the real world how actual users interact with its clients’ services.

“Products and services shouldn’t just work,” says Mankelow. “They should hum. The way to ensure this is to understand human behaviour by listening to people and observing them in action.”

OU has over 180 clients across 18 sectors.

User Experience, or UX is how people respond to products, systems, environments or service and is increasingly a vital component of a brand, driving customer loyalty and repeat purchase.

“UX is the secret sauce that gets customers coming back again and again. It’s what defines a business and makes it hip and cool, safe and respected or efficient and friendly,” he says.

An increasing part of the company’s growth, which has been a 25% a year for the past couple, is from service design. Customer experience of an organisation isn’t usually just at a single ‘touch point’, but may involve a website, phone, retail outlet or other combinations.

But a lot of organisations, banks for example, have a silo approach and more importantly management, at these touch points.

“The managers are incentivised as part of the silo,” says Mankelow. “The experience that a customer gets can be very inconsistent.”

“The way around it is to have a chief experience officer. Then the issue has an overview across the whole organisation.”

Optimal Usability also has web-based products, with almost 500,000 overseas participants having used its Optimal Workshop tools, that allow a company to design a better experience for its clients. “It’s a product where 95% of the revenue’s not from New Zealand, but where a small company from Wellington have subscriptions from the likes of NASA, CNN, Intel, Nokia and Facebook among others,” he says.

The product grew out of an initial project for its own client, but grew and grew so much that it has been set up as another separate product arm he says.

Mankelow envisages that OU will remain at its current boutique size, and increasingly will often pick which clients it wants to deal with.

“Our strategy is to do the kind of work we want to do, and the organisations we want to work with,” he says. “We’re not about world domination, but want to raise the bar for all.”