Illustration by

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top layers get a shiny new coat of graphics and meaningless “we really care” content—but underneath, a teeming mass of out-of-date, badly organized information still swirls about.

Article Continues Below

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#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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.

About the Author

Gerry McGovern

Gerry McGovern has published five books about the need for customer-centricity in the online world. His last book, The Stranger’s Long Neck, helps you identify and measure top tasks. He used to be a rock journalist, interviewing the likes of Lou Reed and Nick Cave. His weekly newsletter was recently shortlisted for a Webby.

67 Reader Comments

  1. You’re welcome, Jolly. We used Survey Monkey for the survey design and collection. Then we take the data and process it through an Excel add-inn that we have developed and refined over the years.

  2. This was a really informative article. If only all the companies we work with who create concept and design would take a similar approach, we could get websites that actually work, instead of the plain simple “let’s put a big slideshow on top” websites where the pages are dominated by “gut-feeling” design instead of actually doing some research.

  3. Thank you, Giel! The battle against ego-based ‘tiny tasks’ design is never-ending. I often say that the worst ways to design a website is to have 5 smart people in a room drinking lattes. This is the age of the customer and the age of data, but many in the design community have not caught up with that reality yet.

  4. A great article. The thing that really strikes me about your article is how you prioritize tasks over user personas. We have been working with a very similar methodology. I am really interested in how you then apply this task list to the next stage of ux (which I assume is journey mapping) without a persona to pin this on.
    Maybe you can suggest a book or resource that I could explore?
    Thanks

  5. Thanks, Mason, and a good question. We’ve done more than 400 task identification projects and one thing we’ve consistently noticed is that top tasks run across multiple audiences, geographies, personas.

    Over the years, I have moved away from using personas. I have just found them very problematic when it comes to designing an information architecture from them. We once had personas for Professors and Students, for example. But when we tested a task such as “Put together a geography lesson for your students using interactive maps,” a significant percentage of the professors were clicking on “Students”, whereas we expected them to click on “Professors”. This is a classical problem with personas in architecture: is it for or about? Also, we have found people don’t like self-selecting into persona groups, and often they may fit into multiple groups. They just want to do something, complete a task. When you go to Dell, for example, you don’t want to select that you’re a home user; you just want to buy a computer.

    We’ve found that going with a task-based design is better unless your personas are very distinct and have totally different tasks.

  6. Hi Gezza! Great article. Quick q: is the survey sent to ‘all’ customers? Or do you do a representative sample? We have distinct audiences with varying tasks. I can just envisage people at work saying “well, you didn’t send it to so-and-so’ type of customer, that’s why my task isn’t high up the list” blah blah etc

  7. Excellent article Gerry! In fact, my colleagues and I have read your book The Stranger’s Long Neck back in early 2014. Since then, we have worked hard to convince senior management of the benefits of the top task approach. And with success.

    Albeit with limited budget and time (isn’t that almost always the case though?) we set to work and did our top task research, with help from an external top task advisor. We tested the time it took for people to complete the top tasks, undertook small-scale user testing, made changes on two of our websites (a Dutch and an English one), and once again tested the time it took to complete the top tasks. The results were quite stunning:

    • An average speed increase of top task completion of 42% on the Dutch website (www.nuffic.nl).
    • An average speed increase of top task completion of 50% on the English website (www.nuffic.nl/en).

    Additionally, the tool we used to measure top task completion time (UsabilityHub), also measures the percentage of first time completers. Thus, we gained insight into how many people of our test group managed to complete top tasks, without clicking one single wrong link. That percentage also increased dramatically (in one case from 0% to 75%, with a test group of 20 users).

    So we feel we’ve made a giant leap forward in making the above two websites more user-friendly. But we also feel we’re nowhere near finished. There’s still a lot to do.

    One of the biggest challenges we face right now, is getting real dedication from senior management. On the one hand we hear “great results, go on with the top task approach”, and on the other hand we hear “Oh yeah, put this on the website, and this and that, and help us on this (not top task related) project, and that one”.

    In the last four months we haven’t done anything that relates to top task management. Part of that is due to a merger of our organisation and another one, at the start of 2015. But another part is – I believe – a lack of a clear governance structure, and a lack of clear priorities.

    I have read some of Lisa Welchman’s work, which sounds great, but also feels a bit complex or too big. I’m very interested in your ideas on how to integrate top task management into the DNA of an organisation, from the viewpoint of an enthusiastic and ambitious webteam.

    Do you feel a top task approach can become a governance structure by itself?

  8. That question comes up again and again, Dafydd. Everybody thinks their audience, employee group or customer group is different. So, we always have category / audience / demographic questions such as: What is your professional role? Are you a potential or current customer, etc.

    Then we can look into the data and see if the tasks are different. Do you know what we find most of the time? Huge overlap of top tasks regardless of audience. In Cisco, for example, everyone was very surprised when the results showed that the tasks of potential customers were very similar to current customers.

    But we see that again and again. Potential customers often come to your website to take you for a ‘test drive.’ They want to know what it’s like to configure, what it’s like to download software, etc.

  9. That’s really fantastic news, Marijn. And well done for all your great efforts!

    Ongoing measurement of the top tasks is crucial. With Cisco we measure the top tasks roughly every six months. So, for example, we measure several download software tasks. One is: “Download the latest firmware for the RV042 router.” We test the same task every six months. Initially, there lots of focus on the task and it gets better, let’s say it has a Task Performance Indicator score of 70. Well, if tiny task content is added to the environment that clutters the search and makes navigation more confusing, then the next time we test, the score could have dropped to 60. We have to be able to show how tiny tasks impact top tasks performance over time.

    It’s a long hard process with senior management but we’re breaking through. With a number of organizations we work with, the Task Performance Indicator has become a Key Performance Indicator. Senior management are using it as a way to measure how they are doing with Customer Experience.

    I would keep telling senior management that identifying and continuously improving and measuring top tasks is one of the best possible ways of tracking customer experience.

  10. A great article. Whenever we are looking at how are sites are structured, or building a new product I continually repeat the mantra: “so when people come here, what do they want to do? What are the jobs they want to get done?” We haven’t done the extensive top tasks exercise that you have outlined here (I’d like to!), but even at the simplest level just asking those two questions has really helped our main website and helped us to find a focus that works.

  11. Thanks, Kurt. And, yes, CelestialChook, even asking those simple questions about what people want to do, is a great foundation. I have often had arguments with website owners who didn’t even believe that people wanting to do things on their websites. They were just “looking for information.” As if looking for information is not part of the process of wanting to do something.

  12. Nicely explained! It can be challenging to help stakeholders see that their website isn’t just about what they want to say — it’s about task-driven users.

    A question: do you think the rush to create responsive websites may have organizations emphasizing design over functionality — or will responsive web design help people improve usability? I’m seeing a bit of both out there.

  13. Thanks, E.M. There is a danger, it’s true, that the process of responsive design itself becomes the focus. However, if it becomes ‘responsive functionality’ (and functionality is an inherent part of design), then no matter what channel the customer is using they’re going to be able to complete their task easily and quickly.

    Unfortunately, some organizations take graphic-heavy, marketing jargon websites and make them responsive. If it’s useless, and you make it responsive, it’s still useless.

  14. I used the “top tasks” method successfully for an educational institution. I was quite sceptical because of the need to get people to go through such a long list – and in fact in pilot testing *everybody* commented on this as being onerous.

    However, we got some hundreds of responses (we offered a couple of iPads as prizes) from a range of people (current & prospective students, locally and overseas, and various staff.)

    The cleanliness of the resulting data made it quite clear that people were attending to the list and not just ticking the first few boxes to get through it. (We randomised the presentation order for the list and had clear sets of “winner” tasks.)

    One change I made was that instead of using 5 for most important, I used 1 to 5 with 1 being most important. I have no data to justify this change, other than a feeling that “1” and “first” would be more strongly associated (a semantic point rather than a methodological one).

    In any case, we got great data that was quite convincing for the institution. Of course, it’s really important to go out and do the research that generates the long-list in the first place, and to have appropriate collaboration and buy-in.

  15. We recently undertook a Top Task analysis for our SaaS product. While there are similarities to informational websites, there may be some differences too. We’re still in the analysis phase, but we’re actually pretty happy with the results thus far – we got a “long neck” and are finding some top tasks correlate with other metrics in the organization (such as top page views). I was wondering if anyone had done Top Tasks analyses on software products that had any thoughts on key differences? Or maybe there is no difference, a task is a task?

  16. Hi Amaya, we’ve just done a couple of top tasks projects for software products. We didn’t find any significant difference in the voting patterns in comparison to the more ‘information-based’ environments that we usually analyze. As you say: A task is a task is a task.

  17. Great article, great technique. I’ve been using it for years at the University of Edinburgh, since discovering Gerry’s work. I can’t recommend it enough. Combine it with analytics data, CRM data and usability testing for maximum value.

    As well as using the technique as described here, I’ve also used it for prioritisation of software features development (it’s essentially a remote version of the agile user story poker chip technique) and as a means to gather positive/negative feedback on IT service provision.

  18. That’s great to hear, Neil! I haven’t heard of it being used before as a means to gather positive/negative feedback. That’s definitely interesting.

    I’ve just been informed of another first for the method. A partner has used it with management of a large organization to identify the top tasks of a manager on a day to day basis. They asked two different questions but using the same list of tasks. First question: What do you spend most time on? Second question: Where do you add most value? The results are fascinating.

  19. “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.”

    Excellent, thanks so much Gerry!

    I used top taks approach like this for restructure of intranet site a few years ago, and am hoping to use itr agina soon on a public facing page set. Of course, ther biggest challenge is getting the internal buy in to do it this way and then (especially) to proceed with new strcuture on basis of the results.

  20. Awesome article, Gerry!

    We’ve used this technique at The Good to reliably arrive at what matters most to customers. In fact, all our employees read Gerry’s book, The Stranger’s Long Neck, before working on any client projects so they can integrate the philosophy completely.

    The only way to get any kind of ROI on ecommerce or lead generation site improvements is to invest in understanding what people are actually trying to do, then helping them do those (few) things easily.

  21. Thanks for a great article, Gerry. It’s a constant battle to keep your visitors as the priority, especially because people can get really defensive, protective, and territorial about their content. You’ve given me something to pass along to my team when we’re in the midst of it!

    It reminds me a bit of something Kurt Vonnegut said – “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

  22. Great quote from Kurt Vonnegut, Erik. Yes, if most websites were a digestive system they’d have no capacity to poop.

    Thanks, Shaun. Great ROI on the Web is about doing a little really well, rather than pumping out lots of content and apps.

  23. What resonated with me about this article is the idea of tiny tasks. I work with large institutions that think they have thousands of use cases. But the majority are either works of fiction or edge cases. They waste so much time and effort on tiny tasks and they so often make it hard for people to complete the top tasks.

    I spend too much time getting organisations to prioritise on what matters. They are always getting distracted by scenarios that rarely if ever occur.

  24. Gerry – Thanks for sharing Top Tasks Management with the world. It’s a quick, useful method that has proven itself once and again for stakeholders in Google Search. The pattern that emerges every single time (image under Step 4 above) is nothing but powerful and amazing.

  25. When a tiny task goes to sleep at night, Paul, it dreams of being a top task. And it wakes up in the morning all excited, and it doesn’t deliberately set out to make your life miserable, but those tiny tasks are so many and so persistent …

    Great to hear, Tomer. Yes, it is a bit amazing to see the long neck emerge. We’ve done over 400 top task identification projects so far, and every time we see that clarity and focus coming out of the results.

  26. First of all, thanks for a great article, Gerry! Although almost everything is said here already, I would like to share some experiences from Norway.

    In a ongoing project to develop a new online solution for all Norwegian hospitals, we used both focus groups (qualitative methodology) and top task analysis (quantitative methodology). Both methods have proved to be very useful.

    — Cutting through the opinions —
    The results from top task survey were unambiguous. We discovered the most important questions our users needed us to answer was: “what happens before, during and after treatment.” This finding was confirmed in both focus groups and statistical analyzes.

    What were the outcomes?

    Firstly, we got a foundation on which to develop the new concept (take a look at the prototype here – far from complete, but gives a picture of a relatively uncompromising focus on the top tasks: http://test.helseboksen.no/site/index.html).

    Secondly (and just as important), we were given a well-proofed argument – a tool to cut through various opinions. As responsible for the concept, I found that very effective. We no longer believe something about our users needs, we know. This gives us some peace to work in the project.

    — Building the business case —
    Focusing on the top tasks is not a capitulation for the users on the expense of what is important for the business. Why should we care about the fact that patients, families and primary health care want information about what happens before, during and after treatment? Altruism? Yes maybe. But I think the key to gaining acceptance for focusing on user needs, is building a business case around those needs. In our case we can point to the studies showing that a well-informed patient is less costly to treat than patients without this knowledge.

    Voila!, We now have the business case, and the web is no longer a nice-to-have add on to the core activity at the hospitals, it has become part of the core business, namely a part of the treatment.

    — Understanding the top tasks —

    We are basically skeptical of using focus groups to identify user needs. Users are not designers, and they often uncritically ask for an endless list of content and functionality.

    But the focus groups have helped us understand the top tasks.
    We now relize we will address people in a vulnerable part of life. They are extremely information-hungry. They do not distinguish between medical and practical information, they want it all in the right context. And they process information as part of the treatment.

    We summed the findings in a simple story (the patient´s story), witch tells us what is hiding behind the slightly cold phrase “What happens
    before, during and after treatment”:

    “When I became ill, I had to orient myself in a new and frightening reality. I wondered what was wrong with me, what kind of treatment I would get and what would happen to me in the recovery.
    I also wanted to find the hospital that could give me the best treatment I was going through.

    Prior to hospitalization I also had many practical question: Where can I park my car? Which building should I show up at, and where is the front door? Can my spouse be with me in the hospital?
    Those were all questions running through my mind.

    I found it difficult to find the answers.”

    We are now going to change that!

    Sorry for the long comment; I didn’t have time to write a short one:)

    With a lot of love from Oslo,

    Eirik (and the rest of the project team)

  27. As you say, Eirik, the best business case is putting the customer first. So many organizations do not want to answer the most important questions people have on the Web. Instead, they want to push PR spin and old school marketing. And this sort of stuff just doesn’t work any more.

    Traditional marketing is like antibiotics. It’s been used so much we’re becoming immune to it.

    Time and time again, we find that if you design a website that allows people to quickly and easily complete their top tasks, everybody wins. The customer is satisfied and if they’re satisfied they’re more likely to positively interact with the organization in the future. It’s actually as simple as that.

  28. I rely heavily on this methodology for my organization’s website. What surprised me about this was how easy it is to convey to the employees and content creators. Other methods that help to improve the overall site experience for our audience require a lot of explaining. As soon as someone sees this, the know immediately how to improve their content, how it should be positioned on the web, and even what no to do or ask for.

  29. What I find rewarding about Top Tasks Management is the energy and insights we gain by collaborating with people in organisations in gathering the longlist. It is the process that counts, and working in this way assures that people understand and accept the results.

    In Top Task Management I see a way of making great websites that work, and that really is the best publicity an organisation can get.

    So thanks Gerry for your inspiring work and sharing your method!

  30. We used this system successfully for three software divisions at IBM. As you may imagine, each was a complex business with 100s of products and 1000s of opinions of “What people want.” This survey was a great leveler. We gathered over 500 randomized responses per software division (with geographical spread) and quickly determined the top tasks from a list of about 90.

    A few things we did that others may consider:
    1) Aggregate tasks into groups. A number of specific tasks really boiled down to the question: “Show me how it works.” (One of our top three tasks)
    2) Infer the character of the “herd”. When you see the top tasks, you can make some judgements on where the bulk of your visitors are in a buying cycle. (Hint…they are not at the “What is reporting?” level)
    3) Do studies for two or more divisions if you can. You will likely find out that parts of your business that think they have “special” customers & needs really don’t. All web visitors are generally looking for the same things.

    This process is wonderful practical medicine. However, you will find that people still chase fads in design rather than the real needs of visitors. Back up your Top Tasks information with constant demonstrations of click data. Gerry’s process tells you what people want; Click data will confirm it.

    Good luck with driving organizational change that will matter to your web visitors.

  31. We had the privilege of working with Gerry at the OECD, an evidence-based international organisation known mostly for its comparable statistics. We did the Customer Satisfaction Index, Top Task Identification, Top Task Testing, and the Search Performance Indicator with him. Without the evidence we collected from our external audiences, we would never have been able to get a real grasp of their needs, nor convince our internal stakeholders (e.g. policy analysts, statisticians, comms staff) to let go of their organisational egos and opinions. We separately asked our internal stakeholders to take the Customer Satisfaction and Top Task surveys. It was almost funny to compare the results between the external and internal audiences. It proved that staff really didn’t understand the needs of our website users, and that staff just had opinions based on… nothing.

  32. “All web visitors are generally looking for the same things.” Never a truer statement, John. And all organizations think they’re really different, and every division thinks they’re really different, and all different audiences have really different needs. Not true, not true, not true. (But it keeps us consultants employed.) Again and again we find top task patterns that run across multiple audiences, geographies and sectors. People buy technology products and services, for example, in the same basic way everywhere. Yes, it does get more complex as you dig deeper but there is a lot of commonality out there when it comes to top tasks.

    It is interesting, Cynthia, to run two top tasks surveys with the exact same task list: one for the customer, one for the organization. Then you can prove with data where the organizational pet tiny tasks and blind spots are. As Zann pointed out in an earlier comment, the data is quite compelling and can convince a great many colleagues to change their focus.

  33. Business Wales is the Welsh government’s information, advice and guidance service for businesses in Wales.

    We at the Business Wales online team manage and maintain the web site business.wales.gov.uk – communicating practical information to general and specialist business audiences. We’re also responsible for a range of social media channels (LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, with more to be launched soon), and an e-newsletter.

    All these are popular channels, but we wanted some concrete and measurable information to establish:
    • what information customers needed most
    • whether we were providing it
    • whether customers could find and use it easily
    • whether we could do better in terms of making content easily discoverable and usable

    We contracted Customer Carewords (Gerry McGovern’s organisation) and SOCITM to help us do this.

    Gerry opened the project with a presentation of the Top Tasks approach. Whilst this might seem simple, looking at others’ websites and communications with fresh eyes, I notice how some organisations are making popular and basic tasks difficult to find and interact with. And, conversely, how they give disproportionately-prominent coverage to less-popular content.

    Since the initial meeting we have started evaluating business.wales.gov.uk, using Gerry’s tried and tested process of identifying and filtering tasks undertaken on the site, and then refining these and, by using an online survey, confirming these with customers.

    The next steps of the work will be to further analyse how easy (or not) it is for customers to undertake and complete these tasks, and to take action based on these findings.

    So far, we have found the Top Tasks approach to be very effective in helping us identify what is most important to customers. It offers a through and systematic process to identifying and filtering Top Tasks, and then confirming findings with users. We have found our customers very eager to respond to our research, and are looking forward to working with customers on active user testing.

    We’ve also started using the Top Tasks approach in planning our marketing and communications activity, in particular when drafting and scheduling social media and e-newsletters.

    My reservation, is that too-rigid a following of the Top Tasks approach would mean that the most prominent content would respond to what the customer already knows and wants (the known-known) leaving little room for introducing the unknown-unknown – but I am confident the system can allow for necessary flexibility.

  34. Excellent summary, Gerry! As you point out, at Cisco, we’ve wholeheartedly adopted the “top task management” approach in most of what we do for web and mobile. It has made a tremendous difference in everything from our support experiences to how we support navigation across our sites for tasks related to buying, product evaluation, consumption, and more.

    I want to reassure digital teams that just because you focus on top customer tasks doesn’t mean you need to ignore tasks related to your business goals – in fact, business KPIs are usually supported by top tasks. A good example is the one Gerry gives related to financing of products. This was a task that users rated as low on their overall priority lists, but upon further study what we realized is that it’s very important at specific places in the customer’s buying journey. So, it’s a function we’ve begun to make very visible later within the buying journey – where it’s more important – than as a first awareness step for customers.

    Another thing Gerry touches on in the comments is personas. We’ve found personas to be valuable in informing our strategy, content strategy, and personalization strategies. But, as Gerry mentions, don’t necessarily organize your whole site around job roles or personas, because this may not work for your users. For example, many personas are interested in Products or Solutions and we’ve watched multiple job roles (support, administrators, product evaluators, etc) gravitate to these areas of our sites for different reasons. (They may access the same products areas for support, or to research new products or to compare products between one another, or to upgrade, or to find related solutions, etc.) But, understanding the behavior of different personas in completing top tasks across a site is certainly valuable.

    The most useful thing about a “top tasks” methodology for us is that it gives us a way to measure and manage progress on the usability and effectiveness of key experiences over time. It lets us focus continually on improving the interactions our customers, partners, and other key audiences have with us.

  35. Agreed, Martin! The top tasks are business critical because if you can’t help customers do the most important things they want to do with you quickly and easily, you won’t have them as customers for very long.

    The tiny tasks can of course become ‘top tasks’ at a certain point of the customer journey. They in this sense support an overall top task of, for example, purchasing or buying something. As you point out, it’s knowing the journey and placing the appropriate things at the exactly right point in the customer path.

    Personas, if properly done, can be very good for helping develop empathy and understanding of the customer. I used to champion the persona approach a lot, but found out over the years that they often become fictional ‘perfect’ customers. Also, they don’t translate well into navigation, because people can have many different roles, and we found also that people don’t like clicking on links that put them into a particular persona category.

    As you point out, we didn’t just stop after we identified top tasks. Working with your teams we have been measuring these tasks roughly every six months for the last five years. It’s a real credit to Cisco that you have embraced ‘continuous improvement’ in a real and genuine manner. The constant conversation is about making it easier for customers and saving them time completing their top tasks. We’re constantly observing and continuously improving.

  36. Great article Gerry. We, at Neo Insight, have been using your top task approach since 2007, after you gave your Master Class in Ottawa, Canada. Since that time, we have done several Top Task Identification projects as well as numerous Top Task Performance Indicator projects with both private and public sector organizations.

    The Top Task process has been extremely valuable in breaking down internal silos because the core team members used in the shortlisting process are drawn from across the organization. They start to see the interdependencies within their organization, the amount of rework going on, and the lack of sufficient web governance to really target the needs of their customers for self-service; that is for being able to get things DONE on their websites.

    We’ve found the Top Tasks results really help management to prioritize what actions are going to have the largest payback. Having objective data also minimizes the amount of time wasted in arguments or discussion based solely on opinion. It gives employees in the trenches the ammunition they need to influence and improve the higher level decisions made about web content, web development, web budgets, etc.

    One part of the analysis, the Empathy Score, often has a significant impact on changing senior management perspectives when they realize they are not their customers and that their view of customer needs often varies significantly from the actual needs. Once this perspective changes, they get fully behind Top Task Management as the optimal strategy for improving customer satisfaction, task completion rates, sales, and many other organizational metrics. As you’ve often mentioned, Gerry, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure”.

    As clients move along the digital maturity curve, they realize that web funding cannot be project based. It must be based on an operations budget focused on continuous improvement, not major reworks every 3 or 4 years. They realize the focus has to be on task management, not content management and not on managing new technologies.

    Ultimately, they extend their task based focus to addressing cross-channel customer interactions, ensuring the web experience is integrated with other channels which all complement and support one another.

    Always looking forward to more from you Gerry. Thanks!!!

  37. Hi Gerry, great article, as always – had to share it with some colleagues 🙂

    Was wondering how you collect the data. Is the users of a given website prompted with the survey or?

  38. Thanks, Michael. We use SurveyMonkey as it allows us to easily create the voting question for the task list. Typically, it’s either a pop up that requests people to do the survey, or else a request is sent to an email list.

    Other less used ways of getting people to vote is attending conferences / events with ipads / laptops and asking people. Some have printed out the survey and got people to manually fill it out, and then later the data was input into SurveyMonkey.

  39. Excellent article!!

    As part of the team at Cisco involved with user research and the Top Task Analysis Framework, I have seen the effectiveness of this approach. In my discussions with stakeholders and other researchers across Cisco, I emphasize what I feel are the two core questions for anyone working online:

    1) What are your users trying to do? (NOT the same as what they are actually doing)
    2) How well are they able to do what they are trying to do?

    It is vitally important to make the distinction between “what users do (i.e. click on)” and “what they are trying to do.” In talking to stakeholders, they often list web metric data as synonymous with “what users are trying to do” (if they have any data at all). That is a dangerous position since it assumes that all users are accomplishing what they set out to do in the first place.

    The beauty of the Top Task Analysis Framework is that it measures what users ACTUALLY are trying to accomplish and also whether they are able to be successful in those tasks. Not simply seeing what users are currently doing as they potentially struggle through a confusing interface. That’s why I promote your Top Task Analysis Framework as a “problem discovery and measurement” technique. This allows us to determine the Big Three:

    1) SUCCESS/FAILURE: Are users successful in doing what they are trying to do?
    2) SPEED: Are they efficient? (can they do it quickly?)
    3) CONFIDENCE: Are they confident that they were successful or are they unsure of the result?

    When you add the visceral experience of a stakeholder actually watching user after user struggle with key tasks and score it with numerical values, that’s a great research methodology that can really promote change within an organization – as it has done at Cisco.

    The TPI has a prominent position at Cisco and we thank you and your team from Customer Carewords and Gord Hopkins and his team from Neo Insight for all of the great work!

    Jeffrey Davis, Ph.D.
    User Research Lead
    Cisco Systems

  40. It is critical to understand what your customers are trying to do on your websites, versus what they are doing (clicking on), as Jeffrey points out. Once you have identified what their top tasks are you need to continuously measure and improve them. Working with Jeffrey and his colleagues we have found that some tasks which reach a high level of performance can then begin to decline because the Web is a dynamic environment. New content gets added, search results change, and simply things break. You need to keep monitoring your top tasks.

  41. We’ve been monitoring the performance of the top tasks on Cisco’s support website for more than 4 years.

    The Task Performance Indicator (TPI) is becoming a key metric that our executives track because it’s an actionable metric for experience.

    Scores correlate much more closely with efforts to reform the site than other metrics do (such as Customer Satisfaction score, which is typically a lagging indicator of customer experience.)

    We’ve been able to show improvement in the score, largely due to the fact that the study reveals not only the impact of impediments to task completion, but also the nature of the impediments and comments by the user. These details lead to specific improvements.

    Our repetitive testing cycles drive improvements in an iterative process.

    It’s not the only tool in our toolbox, but it’s a very important and effective one.

  42. It should be added that this approach works on websites of all sizes, not just big corporate or organisational websites.

    We build websites for small businesses, where it’s easy to get things wrong even with a five or ten page website. Even with a small business site it’s really easy to overcomplicate things or even miss vital information.

    Taking a slimmed down version of the Top Tasks approach – in particular, addressing tasks rather than content – produces websites that are effective (in that they bring new business and/or money), do well in search and perform well across all devices – the brevity Top Tasks encourages is essential for mobile screens.

    I first came across Top Tasks while working in local government in 2010. Three years ago I left that job to start my own business building websites for small businesses using the Top Tasks approach.

    Apart from producing successful websites (often on a tight budget), the approach is a great way of protecting clients from their worst ideas. Everything on a site has to justify its place, rather than having to justify NOT adding the client’s pet idea.

    Thanks for the inspiration, Gerry!

  43. Patrick, that’s really wonderful to hear! As you point out, the method was developed with larger websites, but it’s really great to hear it works with smaller websites too.

    One thing we try and do is get the team / stakeholders to vote on a copy of the task list. We use the question: “What do you think your customers want most?” It’s illuminating to compare the two votes. Those ‘pet ideas’ usually get dismal scores from customers!

    A powerful aspect of the approach, as Bill points out, is that it is metric you can control. If you improve the task and then test again, your score on the Task Performance Indicator will increase. You can show management the value of your work.

  44. We are HUGE advocates of Gerry’s top task testing methodology at our company and evangelize it to everyone we talk with – both internally and externally. It’s really helped us fight against some of the ‘bright shiny object’ disease and the tendency for everyone to have an opinion of what we put on our webpages (and where/how) – because we have data to back it up! Our customers and partners do this (and not that) and when we organize content this way, they struggle, and when we organize it that way, they succeed! Clear and simple. Not easy to do mind you, but a fact-based approach that wins over colleagues and executives alike every time, and clears the way for us to make significant changes (and prove whether or not they are working for the most important folks – our users).

  45. Thanks for the wonderful read, Gerry!

    I think this could be a useful approach for my team and I’m wondering if there is a resource for using analytics (or some other method/tool) to gain insight for sites that are content heavy (such as a government website) where a successful transaction might be providing a piece of contact information, downloading a document/form, or more often, redirecting a user to an external application to complete a task.

    I know we could use customer feedback, stakeholder reviews, and peer website research, but could we also use site behavior and search analytics beyond page traffic and search to help us first, establish top tasks and second, measure their success?

  46. Hi Jessica, glad you found it useful.

    It definitely works for government as a way to identify what really matters to customers. A task doesn’t have to be a transaction. In content heavy websites, it’s the search for an answer to specific question, such as: Do I qualify? What do my symptoms reflect? Who do I contact? What date will I get my payment on? How do these regulations apply to my business? Etc. Etc.

    Site behavior and search analytics definitely add to the picture of what sort of tasks the customer wants to complete, but they don’t usually tell the whole story. If you don’t have the task currently available, but the customer wants it, then it mightn’t come up in analytics data. Sometimes, we find that the words people search with don’t accurately reflect what their true intent is. Site behavior can be influenced by the quality of the navigation. Poor quality navigation can give the impression certain areas are in fact more important than they are.

    So, if you want to get a true picture of the world of your customer, assemble your task list from multiple sources. Think beyond what you currently have and try and get into the mind of your customer.

  47. Gerry, thank you. Do you have thoughts on identifying tasks externally and outside of what exists? What if the top 5 tasks you survey are ranked, but missing something important? Further, thoughts on how to address when that “something further” falls outside of current business mission or goals. Your insight is much appreciated.

  48. Hi, Danelle, thanks. Sometimes, we run a pre-survey with just a couple of open-ended questions. For an intranet, that question might be: “What are the most important things you do in your work?” This is a good way to not limit just to what already exists. In gathering the initial list of tasks, make sure that you have as many external customer sources as possible. Work with the team to think about the broad task–What’s most important to you in dealing with your health?–rather than with the organization itself–What’s most important to you when you visit our health website?

  49. This is great Gerry!
    Thanks a lot for the thorough explanation!

    In the survey, what’s the reason why you ask people to score the tasks they choose?

    Wouldn’t you be able to get the same result if you asked them to just pick 5?

  50. Thanks, Anders. Good question. The voting helps to clearly distinguish the order of the tasks, particularly where the poll is under 1,000 voters. Over that number of voters we have found that there isn’t much of a difference–from a ranking of the tasks point of view–between the votes a task receives and the number of times it was chosen. So, getting people to vote I feel gets a more precise and refined set of results, particularly for smaller size polls, but if you only got them to choose 5 and not vote, I think you’d still get useful data.

  51. Bit late to this article, having listened to Gerry on Jen Simmons’ Web ahead podcast.

    In the podcast you mention that councils tend to share similar top tasks.

    I wonder if the idea of basing initial top task identification on sector top tasks would be completely antithetical to the approach you outline?

    I suspect that the top tasks across University course websites for example would be pretty similar. We know that universities love to refer to League tables.

    Sector wide top tasks would be a great measure of performance, though I’m dreaming if I think people would be willing to share their top task research.

  52. Kevin, we have developed task masterlists over the years for councils, universities, technology companies, etc. These list are great guides for us in developing the list with the organization.

    A key reason we always try and work closely with the organization is to create engagement and buy-in for the process. The Top Tasks approach is also about organizational change–getting people out of the silos, and getting them to organize around customer tasks.

    Thus, all the various silos in the organization (sales, marketing, support, etc.) need to feel ownership of the task list, and that they understand the basic concept of Top Tasks.

    Developing the list is the easy part really. Developing cross-silo understanding, consensus, and a willingness to work together to help customers easily and quickly complete their top tasks–that’s the real challenge.

  53. Hey Gerry,

    This is a really useful article, as are some of the comment! I’m reading your book at the moment and this has really helped me to start making sense of it all. I’ve joined a new team and have inherited a previous round of TTA that appears to be a ‘light’ version of your method. It’s set up as a card sort (Optimal Sort) rather than as the survey you describe and asks participants to place a single card/item in each of five categories named priority 1, priority 2 etc. There is no way of voting just prioritising 1-5. Is it essential to ask participants to vote in the way you describe in your book or is it sufficient to ask them to prioritise their (e.g.) five most important tasks? Does the large number of total votes (15 x #voters) in your method mean that the output is more reliable/robust?

  54. Also, how did you produce the pie chart with a line for each task? I love it. So clear. I understood immediately.

  55. A great article. Harga Ban Bridgestune Ecopia Ep150
    – The thing that really strikes me about your article is how you prioritize tasks over user personas. We have been working with a very similar methodology. I am really interested in how you then apply this task list to the next stage of ux (which I assume is journey mapping) without a persona to pin this on.

  56. Hi Bex, sorry for the delay in replying. In most situations, priioritization is enough. We’ve been doing some extra research recently and have found that in the the majority of situations, it’s enough just to prioritize.

    The pie chart was created from a Microsoft Excel add-in we created.

  57. Hi Dewi. We avoid personas because we find they create unnecessary complexity, and very quickly they lose connection with actual real customers.

    Once we’ve identified the top tasks, we test them using a process we call the Task Performance Indicator. Actually, I’ve just published an article on it:
    http://alistapart.com/article/task-performance-indicator-management-metric-for-customer-experience

    Part of the process involves getting the organization to create a journey map. Then we test with real customers and see if the journey map the organization created actually reflects how the customer is trying to complete the task.

    Once you start observing customers regularly you don’t need personas. Why have fictional personas when you can have the real thing.

Got something to say?

We have turned off comments, but you can see what folks had to say before we did so.

More from ALA

Nothing Fails Like Success

Our own @zeldman paints the complicated catch-22 that our free, democratized web has with our money-making capitalist roots. As creators, how do we untangle this web? #LetsFixThis