One of the biggest frustrations for developers looking to bring some usability testing into projects is that it traditionally requires the services of pricey consultants. To make matters worse, a lot of “usability consultants” are really just people who read a few blogs about the topic and decided to charge $250 per hour to run some focus groups. I know that a lot of developers have considered doing some usability testing in-house but don’t know where to start. I was recently introduced to a set of tools from Optimal Workshop that are designed to put usability testing tools in the hands of development teams.

First, a little background. Optimal Workshop is an offshoot of Optimal Usability, a usability consultancy based out of New Zealand. Optimal Workshop’s customers wanted a tool that would allow them to self service and self provision basic usability testing. As a result, Optimal Workshop embarked on a project to provide a toolkit of simple systems to allow people to perform their own basic usability testing. Currently, the company offers two tools under the Optimal Workshop umbrella: Chalkmark and Treejack. A third tool, OptimalSort (for testing card sorting), has been out for some time now.

Chalkmark and Treejack are both in beta, so it’s free to use these tools. When the products reach a stable state, Optimal Workshop intends to start changing for their usage. At this time, the pricing model is not certain, but it was made clear to me that it would be quite affordable. I look at the demos and did some hands-on work with both Chalkmark and Treejack. Here are my first impressions of the tools.


Chalkmark is a tool for generating heatmaps of where users try to click to complete a task. This is very helpful, because it allows you to easily see if a design is difficult to use. It’s ludicrously easy to create a Chalkmark test. It took me about 60 seconds to create a simple project based on a screenshot from my PC and asking the user to perform a few simple tasks. You provide text for the introductions and such, add a default image, create at least one “task” (which is simply providing text describing what you want the user to do and uploading an image if it should not use the default), and that is it! When you are satisfied with the project (it has a preview system), you publish it, at which point you are given a link to give to your testers. When you view the results, it shows a nice heatmap of your screens. For the people performing the test, they just visit the URL, enter their e-mail address, and go through the screens, clicking the area of the image that they think will complete the task.

It is so refreshing to have a task this important be this easy. While Chalkmark may still be a beta product, the only error I experienced was a minor (and apparently harmless) JavaScript bug when I viewed the heatmap.

The biggest downside to Chalkmark is actually its simplicity; it is designed for one very specific task. While these kinds of guided tests have a large role to play in usability testing, don’t think that simply running a few dozen users through Chalkmark is a replacement for a full listening lab or other similar, open-ended usability test. On the other hand, it will probably only take you a few minutes to put together a Chalkmark test, and it’s a great, simple way to get rapid, quality feedback, so that you can get your design nailed down a bit before investing in a more expensive and time-consuming test.


Treejack is a lot like Chalkmark, but instead of using images to generate heatmaps, it tests your navigation. First, you create your various pieces of text, just like in Chalkmark. Next, you create a “tree” of your navigation (even without instructions, it took me about 10 seconds to realize that I should use spaces to indent sub-items). Next, you create your tasks, such as, “find out who our clients are” or “request a quote” and for each task, indicate which items in the navigation should be considered “correct.” And that’s it! Users are presented with the text and request for their e-mail address, and they begin the test. They are shown a basic expanding tree navigation and asked to identify which item they think satisfies the request. Unfortunately, the results system has not been finished yet (remember, this is beta software), but the actual tests themselves went smoothly.

Treejack, like Chalkmark, is refreshing to use. It did what it said it would with nearly zero brainpower on my part, other than creating the tests themselves. And, like Chalkmark, Treejack is not a replacement for a full-fledged usability test like a listening lab (and it doesn’t claim to be a replacement); it is simply a great way to get quick feedback.


I am quite enthusiastic about both of these tools. Optimal Workshop deserves a big round of applause for working to put usability testing within reach of the typical software development shop, even those on limited budgets. I think that anyone working on a project that could use a usability test should look at these tools.


Disclosure of Justin’s industry affiliations: Justin James has a working arrangement with Microsoft to write an article for MSDN Magazine. He also has a contract with Spiceworks to write product buying guides.
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