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Top tasks management – how to continuously measure your website’s success

I had an opportunity to attend a masterclass held by Gerry McGovern, the pioneer of top tasks — a key user research methodology that has been used by our team for ten years.

For me, as a new member of the University Website Programme team, this masterclass was an opportunity to quickly get up to speed with one of the team’s core approaches. But it was also a chance for the team to be brought up to date with the latest refinements in Gerry McGovern’s technique.

The top tasks methodology will be familiar to many people who have worked with the University Website Programme over the years. Neil Allison has written and talked about it extensively.

Optimising what’s important – Get to know your long neck – blog post by Neil Allison.

Top tasks is ideal for large, complex websites such as university websites. That is why the technique has been successfully used by organisations like the European Commission and Cisco.

Survey results show what our customers want – EU Digital.

Why top tasks?

One of the biggest issues we face with the web is the sheer volume of it. For website managers, having too much content simply makes it too difficult to keep on top of. Worse still, for our users, a massive website only makes it harder for them to find what they really need.

When a user comes to a website, they are usually trying to complete a specific task or find one key piece of information. It can be like trying to find a needle in the haystack. By allowing our websites to constantly grow in size, we are simply shovelling more hay onto the haystack, and making it harder for our users to find that needle.

Why do we do it? Because most organisations still behave based on what they have traditionally measured — production. By adding new pages, we feel like we are getting stuff done. But in many cases, this has a detrimental effect on the user experience.

Graph illustrating a small number of tasks are far more important than the rest

A top task graph by Gerry McGovern, showing the small number of tasks forming a ‘long neck’. Source: Customer Carewords website.

Almost always, users are only truly interested in a small handful of tasks — the “long neck”. These are what we call top tasks. Organisations often don’t know what these are. Instead they get bogged down with “tiny tasks” that are actually of no real interest to their customers.

According to Gerry McGovern, nine out of ten business objectives should be the same as our customers’ objectives. After all, if we are not meeting our customers’ needs then they will either turn away from our service entirely, or cause more work by phoning up with the same requests over and over.

By developing a strong understanding of those top tasks, we can put ourselves in a much stronger position when it comes to developing a digital strategy, in turn improving the website to improve our business.

No easy task

It is a simple concept, but top tasks management is not necessarily straightforward to undertake.

Merely knowing what our users think are their top tasks is not enough insight, for several reasons.

For one thing, as seasoned user researchers know, what people say they want is not always what they actually want.

We have seen one extreme example of this in the University Website Programme. A top tasks survey suggested that people wanted an advanced search function in the University website search engine. But when the team set up a small experiment to see who would select an advanced search link in the search interface, only 0.003% of over 35,000 users did so.

A top tasks is normally just the first step in gaining deeper insight into our users. We can use top task data to drive a card sorting exercise to create an information architecture. But according to Gerry McGovern, even if you do it really well, this will have perhaps a 60% chance of success first time round.

So the top tasks survey is a tool for us to develop hypotheses about how to improve the experience of using the website. But more work is required to test those hypotheses.

Lean UX – requirements are hypotheses – blog post by Neil Allison containing more about the advanced search case study.

Task performance indicator

That is where the task performance indicator comes in. With three rounds of testing, success rates can increase from 80% to 90%.

At first you want to measure success: “Can our customers complete their top tasks?” But eventually, you want to start measuring time taken to complete the task.

The method itself is similar to usability testing, with some subtle but key differences.

Usability testing is another technique the University Website Programme uses frequently. Get in touch if you are interested in our usability testing service, and our other UX consulting and training services.

Usability testing is good for gathering qualitative information. Classically, it is said that conducting usability testing with as few as five people can bring meaningful insight.

Why you only need to test with 5 users – Jakob Nielsen.

But the small sample sizes typically found with usability tests don’t provide enough confidence for a task performance indicator. Instead, testing with 15 to 20 people can allow us to say with more confidence, “this task has an x% failure rate”.

Another key difference is that you should not ask participants to think out loud as this changes participants’ behaviour. Although you lose some insight into why people do what they are doing, you should avoid the risk of changing people’s behaviour.

Interestingly, Gerry McGovern also views empathy in a user researcher as a double-edged sword – at least when it comes to a task performance test. Empathetic people are more likely to accidentally give the game away. What you need instead is calm rigour.

A tool for continuous improvement

Flowchart demonstrating that you should measure, improve, measure, improve in an ongoing cycle

Gerry McGovern’s slide emphasises to need to continuously measure and improve top task success rates.

The main takeaway for me was the fact that Gerry McGovern emphasises that top tasks analysis should be undertaken continuously.

User research is thought of by some as a chunk of work that happens up-front before the “real work” of production begins. The temptation is to look for quick wins and silver bullets.

But Gerry McGovern’s advice is to measure the same top tasks every 6 to 12 months to ensure that task performance is improving.

The idea of continously measuring the success of your website is of course nothing new. But I have to confess to previously thinking of the top tasks survey exclusively as a piece of up-front research work. Gerry McGovern’s session served as a reminder that the perils of “launch and leave” also apply to fundamentals like understanding our users’ top tasks.

Learn more about top tasks

If you would like to find out more, I will be presenting about top tasks at the next Web Publishers’ Community, on 30 August 2017.

Web Publishers’ Community wiki.

Further reading about top tasks

6 replies to “Top tasks management – how to continuously measure your website’s success”

  1. Chester says:

    Magnificent website. Plenty of useful information here.

    I’m sending it to some friends and also sharing in delicious.
    And obviously, thank you in your effort!

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