Over the years, we have done a number of task identification projects for health organizations. Generally, the top task was checking symptoms. However, when we worked with Norwegian Hospitals, we found the top task was: “what happens before, during and after treatment.”

The results gave Norwegian Hospitals “a foundation on which to develop a new concept,” as Eirik Hafver Rønjum, content strategist at The Norwegian directorate of health states. It gave them a real clarity of purpose for the design of their new web environment.

Because the top tasks approach is based on data of what customers actually want, “we were given a well-proofed argument -- a tool to cut through various opinions,” Rønjum states. “As the person responsible for the concept, I found that very effective. We no longer believe something about our users’ needs, we know.”

It has not been easy to get organizations to put the customer first. Of course, most organizations will tell you they are customer-centric, but the truth is often the opposite. They are organization-centric to the core, and use marketing, communications and PR to pretend to the world that they are customer-centric. There is a strange but deeply held belief that if you put the customer first you cannot achieve your organization’s objectives.

However, as Rønjum points out,

Focusing on the top tasks is not a capitulation to the users at the expense of what is important for the business. Why should we care about the fact that patients, families and primary health care providers 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 well-informed patients are 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.”

I must say that I have been skeptical of focus groups in the past, but Rønjum and his team have found that they are a powerful way to get a deeper understanding of the top tasks.

“We now realize we will address people in a vulnerable part of life,” Rønjum explains. “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.”

Here is one person’s story:

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. Prior to hospitalization, I also had many practical questions: 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.”

Giving people the answers to their most important questions quickly and easily is what top tasks management is all about.