With the downturn in the economy, companies are trying to do more with less. Some are outsourcing jobs, others are laying off contractors, and still others are firing all their consultants. Usability testing is no exception–especially since consultants usually charge between $5,000 and $20,000 per project.


A New Zealand company called Optimal Workshop is trying to disrupt the usability space by offering free software that replaces consultants. Instead of hiring someone, you can use Optimal’s web-based products to test mockups, usability, navigation, and site architecture. They just released their third Software-as-a-service product focused on testing menu navigation.

Sam Ng, one of the founders, told me:

If we succeed with these tools, we’re working ourselves out of a job (we’re usability consultants by day). However, we think the user experience scene will soon experience a paradigm shift from consultant services to software for do-it-yourselfers. We’d still like to have jobs, which is why we’re doing this.

Their second product, Chalkmark, lets you do “micro” user tests remotely by uploading an image of your design, setting a task for that image and sending it to participants as an online “survey”. It’s a painless way to verify your website presents data intuitively–for example, the survey I tried asked me where I should click to find more info about advertising on VentureBeat. (Try it yourself here.) The screenshots can come from paper drawings, Photoshop, or working prototypes.

treejackThe newest product, called Treejack, is aimed at websites with a lot of content. It tests information architecture with end users in the form of an online survey. It helps designers answer questions like, “Does this shallow structure work?”, “What do people think about this label?”, “ Can we use 5 top level categories instead of 7?” (Try it here.)

Currently, ChalkMark and Treejack are completely free; however, the company plans to start charging a subscription fee within the next two months. Basic versions of the software will remain free. Sam also mentioned an increase in demand based on the tight economy:

We’ve literally had a few people tell us they aren’t hiring consultants and will use our tools instead (and their own time).

It’s certainly an interesting idea–a consultancy working itself out of a job. And it seems to be working: Optimal Workshop’s products are used by four of the top ten banks, five of the top ten telecommunications providers, and four of the top ten computer hardware manufacturers.

Reduced costs might stimulate usability studies in previously unexplored territory. What if it were cost-effective to test navigation on the corporate intranet?

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