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What Really Matters: Focusing on Top Tasks

Digital is a space of endless replication. It has never been easier to create—and create, and create. People love to publish, but they hate to remove, which leads to overloaded websites and constant, inevitable redesigns. The top layers get a shiny new coat of graphics and meaningless “we really care” content—but underneath, a teeming mass of out-of-date, badly organized information still swirls about.

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The solution is to make hard choices using Top Tasks Management. Top tasks are the small set of tasks (usually less than 10, often less than five) that matter most to your customers. Make these tasks work well, and you’ll be on the right track. Get them wrong, and chances are you’ll lose the customer.

Top Tasks Management is a model that says: “Focus on what really matters (the top tasks) and defocus on what matters less (the tiny tasks).”

Tiny tasks are a nightmare for web teams. On their own, these tasks seem innocent enough. It’s just one more page, one more link, one more graphic. But gather them up, and many a web professional has found themselves nibbled to death.

Tiny tasks are also full of organizational ego. Often, the more important the task is to the customer, the less content is being produced for it; the less important the task is to the customer, the more content is being produced. This inverse relationship is very typical.

Identifying top tasks

The purpose of Top Tasks Management is to reduce complexity by identifying what really matters to customers. The following steps are involved in a task identification process:

  1. Comprehensively engage the organization in a process of gathering customer tasks.
  2. Work with key stakeholders to come up with a shortlist of these tasks.
  3. Get a representative sample of customers to vote.
  4. Create a league table of tasks from the one with the highest vote to the one with the lowest vote.

Step 1: Gathering the longlist of potential tasks

Use the process of gathering tasks to get outside of organization thinking and inside the customers’ mind and world. Actively engage the key stakeholders in this process. It can be a great way to get the whole organization thinking about what the customer wants to do, rather than what the organization wants the customer to do.

When gathering the list of customer tasks, use as much data as possible. Here are some common data sources for customer tasks:

  • Corporate philosophy: Strategy, mission and vision, and corporate objectives.
  • Customer feedback: Survey results, frequent help requests, insight from support or service teams.
  • Stakeholder reviews: Interview key stakeholders and ask them what they consider top customer tasks.
  • Competitor or peer websites: Review competitor or peer websites and see what sorts of tasks are cropping up.
  • Traditional and social media: What sorts of tasks are being mentioned by customers on social media? Are there specialist traditional media that cover your industry?
  • Site behavior analysis: Most visited pages, most popular downloads.
  • Search analysis: Top search terms on the website, as well as Google public search behavior for your industry.

Why go to all this bother? Why not just depend on the numbers for your most visited pages and top search terms? The truth is that these can be unreliable metrics:

  1. Page visits reflect what you have, not necessarily what customers want. There may be tasks that you don’t have content for—so it’s unlikely they will show up in search and site data. And analyses of page views often reflect an amalgam of tasks; it’s hard to separate the top tasks on these pages from the tiny tasks.
  2. Search is a window into customer behavior, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, when we worked on the BBC intranet, we found they had a feature called “Top Searches” on their homepage. The problem was that once they published the top searches list, these terms no longer needed to be searched for, so in time a new list of top searches emerged! Similarly, top tasks tend to get bookmarked, so they don’t show up as much in search. And the better the navigation, the more likely the site search is to reflect tiny tasks.

Cisco recently undertook a project using Top Tasks Management. When we completed their research, we had over 600 tasks. (In a typical project, we tend to gather between 300 and 500.) Here is a small sample of what the initial tasks looked like for Cisco:

  • Add a network diagram
  • Annual reports
  • Attendant console
  • Benefits of product
  • Network engineer blogs
  • US forums and communities
  • Bug toolkit
  • Bugs, debugging
  • Certifications
  • Cisco MeetingPlace
  • Collaboration
  • Get pricing
  • How to configure
  • Discussion forums
  • Technical forums
  • Support community
  • RV082 installation
  • Network Magic
  • Self-service

There were duplicates, areas of overlap, branding words, and internal jargon. It needed a lot of cleaning up!

Step 2: Getting to a shortlist of tasks

The next step is to bring the longlist of tasks down to a shortlist of no more than 100. Getting a feel for the tasks takes time, which is why we recommend planning on four to six weeks to do the task research and get to the shortlist. Here are some guidelines for shortening your list:

  1. Don’t use brands, jargon, tools, or formats. Get to the essence of what the thing helps the customer do. Avoid specialized or vague phrases like “MeetingPlace,” “Network Magic,” or “Videos.” What is the essence of the task? Is it Pricing, Configuration, Troubleshooting, Training?
  2. Avoid product names or groups. Instead of “RV082 installation,” use “Installation,” as that covers all products. Don’t use “Collaboration” or “TelePresence,” as these are product groups.
  3. Eliminate overlap. “Bug toolkit” and “Bugs, debugging” are essentially the same thing, so you can bring them together into one task. There’s also a lot of overlap between “Technical forums,” “Support community,” “Forums and communities.” We probably only need one task here.
  4. Avoid lofty concepts and goals. A goal is wanting to spend more time with your family, but a web task is booking a vacation. All of the tasks on the list should be roughly at the same level. What do “Self-service” and “Knowledge Base” actually mean?
  5. Ignore audiences and demographics. Keep tasks universal. We don’t want “Network engineer blogs” or “US forums and communities.”
  6. Avoid verbs. The noun is the task. Only use verbs when they’re essential. The list becomes very difficult to scan when so many tasks begin with “find,” “get,” etc. We don’t need “Get Pricing”; the word “Pricing” is fine.
  7. Avoid phrase repetition. Try not to have more than four tasks in your final list begin with the same word. In the longlist, we had lots of tasks beginning with “Cisco.” In the final shortlist, we only used “Cisco” where we felt it was absolutely essential.
  8. Be concise. Use a maximum of seven words or 55 characters for any particular task.

Your tasks might also include subtasks in parentheses. Subtasks should not be exhaustive—typically just two or three examples—and we do not use “etc.” at the end (or else every task would have it).

At the end of the process with Cisco, they agreed on 67 tasks that reflected what customers wanted to do. It was the first time this organizational consensus had ever occurred. Here’s a sample of the list:

  • Troubleshooting (bug fixes, diagnostics, guides)
  • Blogs
  • Calculate return on investment (ROI)
  • Check product or service availability (lead times, back order, in stock, in my region)
  • Compare Cisco products, services and solutions to each other
  • Customer / user reviews and ratings
  • Download software, firmware, drivers, patches, updates
  • Follow Cisco on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube
  • Network design (tech guides, notes, examples)
  • Pricing for an individual product or service
  • Training (courses, calendar, locations)
  • Troubleshooting (bug fixes, diagnostics, guides)

Notice that we did include “Blogs,” despite our rule against including formats. Sometimes we leave in a word or phrase just to prove that it will not get a big vote. If there’s a buzzword that is all the rage internally, consider leaving it on the list just to see how customers react.

By far the most important part of the shortlisting process is involving as many key stakeholders as possible. We brought together people from Cisco’s marketing, support, communications, product, and other teams. It was a hugely enlightening process for everyone involved. They began to understand where there was overlap, and how they would need to collaborate on content and navigation.

Step 3: Getting customers to vote

The third step is to have customers weigh in on the shortlist. We usually send out a survey and ask each person to rank five tasks, giving 5 to the most important, 4 to the next-most important, and so on:

A screenshot of a long survey, showing instructions, a list of 67 tasks, and spaces to rank the tasks.


That’s a joke, right? Nobody would do that. It breaks all the rules of psychology and survey design. It’s simply not possible. Yet in the last 10 years, we have done over 400 similar surveys with close to 400,000 people voting. It’s crazy, but it works.

The voting survey needs to be designed this way because:

  1. We want to find out what really matters to people—what they do versus what they say they do. The very length and overload of the survey forces the gut instinct to kick in. You don’t “read” the list; rather, the tasks that really matter to you jump out.
  2. The core deliverable of the survey is a league table of tasks. You get to know not just the top tasks, but also the tiny tasks, and how each task ranks in relation to other tasks. It gives you a hierarchy of importance that will allow you to make design and content decisions—what to prioritize, what not to prioritize.

Step 4: Analyzing the results

Cisco is a complex world. The 67 tasks in the final task list were all seen as top tasks. They had been edited down from a list of more than 600. And yet, when the votes were counted, here’s what happened:

A pie chart divided into 67 unequal pieces, showing that three tasks take up a quarter of the chart and the bottom 44 tasks take up another quarter.

Three tasks got the first 25 percent of the vote. Six tasks got from 25–50 percent of the vote, 14 tasks got from 50–75 percent of the vote, and 44 tasks got from 75–100 percent. Yes, three tasks got as much of the vote as the bottom 44. In fact, the top task (“Download software”) got as much of the vote as the bottom 23 tasks.

We have done this process over 400 times and the same patterns emerge every single time.

This is Cisco’s league table of the top 20 tasks:

A table displaying the same data as the pie chart, but showing only the top 20 tasks and their percentage of the total vote.

The top task (“Download software”) got 2,408 votes out of a total of 26,160 votes cast, representing 9.2 percent of the overall vote.

Here are the tasks at the bottom of the vote:

A table displaying the same data as the pie chart, but showing only the bottom 20 tasks and their percentage of the total vote.


The bottom task (“Financing, leasing options”) got 29 votes. This is not to say that financing and leasing are unimportant; it’s just that people don’t go to Cisco.com for them. Also, notice how “Blogs” got just 76 votes out of 26,160 cast. People don’t care about the format. They care about the task of installing the RV082 router, for example. If they find a blog post about how best to install the RV082, then, sure, they’ll read that.

Using the results

The benefits of such an evidence-based, collaborative approach are worth the effort. For example, in 2010, downloading a typical piece of software could take 15 convoluted steps and an average of 280 seconds. Now, much of the software can be downloaded in four steps and an average of 45 seconds. Success rates have improved for many tasks by as much as 30 percent.

Every six months, Cisco does a formal test of its top tasks, giving real customers real examples of top tasks and measuring success rates and time on task. These “Task Performance Indicators” have become Key Performance Indicators for the Cisco web team.

Another key outcome of Top Tasks Management is a more collaborative work environment, where people come together to manage a task, rather than just manage a website or an app or publish content for a particular department. Cisco has embraced this approach; the Marketing and Support divisions are in regular contact, and employees from IT, usability, content, and experience design work closely and coordinate their efforts.

The essence of a great customer experience is to help people quickly and easily complete their tasks—but to do that, you need evidence of those tasks, not opinions. Top Tasks Management gives you the data to focus on what really matters: removing (or at least deemphasizing) a whole plethora of tiny tasks, and improving the small set of top tasks that your customers really want.

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