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Usability Engineering in New Zealand

Usability is a young industry in New Zealand. For example, the University of Waikato Usability Lab was the first dedicated usability facility in New Zealand, and it was started a scant four years ago.

However, an understanding of what usability is and the added value it offers has been growing. As a result, usability has grown quickly among design and software vendors as both a service and a product differentiation tool. Today there are approximately forty full-time usability practitioners in New Zealand.

The Wave

The growth in popularity and interest in usability in New Zealand has been well supported by visits from a number of usability gurus during the last two years. These visitors include Don Norman, Susan Dray, Kim Goodwin, and Ben Shneiderman. This interest and support from the international community has been vital in raising awareness and verifying the credibility of the usability industry in New Zealand, as well as in keeping local practitioners up to date with overseas trends.

The usability “wave” has also seen the establishment of a New Zealand chapter of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA), with three branches in different parts of the country. Until last year, the organization had no presence in New Zealand but there are now over 300 mailing list members in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, out of an overall population of four million inhabitants.

Who Uses Usability?

Generally it’s large, innovative organizations that are investing in usability in New Zealand. Many of these are multinational companies, such as Vodafone and global dairy company Fonterra, with multiple customer channels (websites, short message service or SMS, stores, contact centers, ATMs, kiosks). Government agencies, such as the Inland Revenue Department and Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, also invest in usability, particularly as awareness has grown due to centrally mandated accessibility requirements. (As a result of those requirements, many usability consultants are expected to be fluent in Web accessibility issues.)

User-centered design has been applied to software development and to fixed and mobile telephony interfaces, but is more commonly associated with Web development. In fact, usability in this country is almost synonymous with Web usability.


Usability professionals in this part of the world generally work as external consultants—only a small number of New Zealand companies from the banking and telecommunications industries have internal usability positions.

Most experienced usability consultants and information architects in New Zealand are either self-trained or have overseas qualifications. For example, at our usability company, Optimal Usability, over 60 percent of the staff comes from outside New Zealand.

Fortunately, attracting skilled migrants in the usability industry is made easier by the appeal of the New Zealand lifestyle. Increasing numbers of experienced and qualified usability practitioners seek work in New Zealand, from places as diverse as the United States, India, Switzerland, England, and South Africa.

Because the usability industry in New Zealand is relatively young, some discrepancy exists between what the market is willing to pay top usability consultants and what they themselves believe they are worth. Usually, this requires consultants to take up compromise roles where usability or information architecture is a small part of a much broader business analysis or interactive design role.

On the whole, New Zealand is a country of “deep generalists”— our size means that professionals in many fields have developed a unique blend of knowledge depth and knowledge breadth. This is no different when it comes to usability and information architecture, as practitioners tend to have skills that cover the full spectrum of usability.

International Interest

Because New Zealanders are traditionally early adopters of technology, the country is seen as a great “test location” by many companies. Our multicultural population, favorable exchange rate, and small but representative size of four million inhabitants means prototypes and concepts for multinational companies are easily tested here.

Overall, the usability industry in New Zealand is still small—there is a lot of room for growth. But awareness is growing and a strong grass roots movement has sprung up to explain the benefits of usability and its tangible business returns. The depth of talent in New Zealand’s usability community provides a strong foundation. Now we are ready for the building to begin.