Optimal Usability has had several changes in the last month, with Kris Nygren appointed its Auckland-based CEO, while co-founder and former CEO Trent Mankelow will be expanding the business to Asia and building up the Australian operation.

Grant Parry has also been appointed the new Auckland GM, Nygren's previous position.

Optimal Usability, founded in Wellington by Mankelow and Sam Ng 10 years ago, has three shareholders - Mankelow, Ng and Shailesh Manga, who Nygren replaced as Auckland GM a year ago.

The company started inside Creative HQ - the Wellington equivalent of The Icehouse - in February 2003, and now has offices in Auckland and Wellington with 19 staff.


Optimal positions itself as New Zealand's leading user experience design consultancy with a client list of 200 companies predominantly from the financial services, telco and government sectors. It has helped companies such as Air New Zealand and ASB to develop products and services for the end user including mobile banking apps and Air NZ's Skycouch.

Sister companies include Optimal Experience, which has a team of seven consultants in Australia, and user experience SaaS product company Optimal Workshop, with an international customer list including CNN, Nasa, BBC, Facebook and Intel.

The NZ business employs specialists ranging from graduates in anthropology and design to physicists and cartographers.

"Cartography is a good analogy for what we do - cartography is about making things to the right dimensions," says Nygren.

It's similar to the way someone will draw a friend a map - there will just be a few key landmarks and not too much detail.

It's called user experience design, says Nygren, who joined the business a year ago.

"I was a client at Sovereign and was completely enamoured with the approach of interactive design, getting the users into the process," he said.

Since arriving in New Zealand 16 years ago, Nygren worked at Fonterra and Sovereign in innovation and strategy roles. He is also an active investor, director and shareholder in a number of start-ups here and in Sweden as well as being an executive-in-residence for The Icehouse.

Nygren sees Optimal playing a more strategic role with customers on design.

"Often what we've done in the past is help people understand users - now it's at a higher strategic level. It's more about co-design. Companies come to us with cool ideas that they want designed."

Nygren likes clients to approach Optimal early on in the process. "Our preference is that customers come to us with a sketch, saying 'we are thinking about doing this'. It's about being able to help influence what they put out there," says the CEO.

Tourism NZ is going to make some quite fundamental changes to its website, NZ.com, after working with Optimal, he says.

Nygren would like to see growth in the Australian business, which Optimal Usability half owns, and is a third the size of the New Zealand business.

"We've also got our eye on Asia. Our industry is reasonably immature, this is where Trent needs to set us up to succeed, while I will run the business in NZ."

With the company's turnover at close to $3 million, Nygren believes it will be growing more quickly year on year.

Meanwhile the potential in NZ is still excellent. Companies are really waking up to the importance of user centred design, he says.

"Competing on experience is all they have got when they can't compete on cost or brand."