Jimmy is looking for a law school. For the last 10 years, he's been an electronics engineer at a very innovative company. He's realized he enjoys working with his company lawyer to file new patents and thinks he could be a good patent lawyer himself, especially with his high-tech engineering background.
Jimmy was excited about exploring schools. With us peering over his shoulder, he started searching Google for a local school, finding one that he recognized as having a great reputation.
Reaching the landing page of the school's site, he told us he had three questions he needed answered: Does the school go into enough depth on intellectual property law, especially patents, to make Jimmy happy? Would Jimmy find the school affordable? What does it take to complete a law degree through evening courses?
Unfortunately, the site didn't help him with his questions. While there seems to be a "concentration" on intellectual property law, he couldn't tell how much depth it went into or the expertise of the instructors. He knew there must be a section that talks about tuition and financial aid, but he couldn't find it. Moreover, he couldn't find any detail on the evening program, especially how big the class load was and whether it’s practical to do while working.
Jimmy was the perfect prospective candidate for the school, yet he ended up considering looking elsewhere because the site had failed to address his tasks.
Tasks need to be the focus
Jimmy's plight is something that Gerry McGovern, author of Creating Killer Content, has been giving a lot of thought to. In a recent interview, Gerry told us why the law school web site failed: its design team had the wrong focus.
To meet the needs of the users, the team needs to make task completion their #1 objective. "Don't manage the technology; don't manage the content; don't manage the information; and don't manage the graphics," Gerry says, "Manage the tasks."
It's easy for a team to be wrapped up in the parts they can see from their desk: the technology, the content, the information architecture, or the graphics. They can touch these things. They can manipulate them. But these things aren't why the user comes to the site.
By managing the tasks, Gerry says we prioritize what's important. Sure, to complete their tasks, the user will need technology, content, IA, and graphics. No web site can be without these essential items. Yet by managing the design with the tasks as the focus, the team ensures that they prioritize their resources on the assets most important to the user.
Nobody owns the top tasks
Interestingly, Jimmy didn't need anything special from the law school's web site. His tasks were the same as other prospective students. Interviewing other candidates would quickly show they had the same questions and concerns.
Even more interesting, the law school's web team already knew these were important tasks. Their problem was that nobody "owned" them. It wasn't anybody's job to make sure Jimmy and others could complete them.
Gerry wasn't surprised, as he says the lack of ownership is very common. Partly, he says, it's because the top tasks are not very sexy. In fact, they are often really boring.
You don't have to look much further than your own organization's intranet, Gerry tells us. "The top task is nearly always 'Find People'. But nobody owns it. Nobody wants to do that kind of get-your-hands-dirty-work because it seems boring and unchallenging."
[Editor's Note: see related articles by Gerry McGovern including Confusing Menus and Links: The Web's Biggest Challenge, Writing Killer Web Headings and Links and Don't Trust Your Gut Instinct.]
The disconnect between production and consumption
Gerry thinks part of the problem is we don't make these kinds of tasks part of our daily job. "If you were running a restaurant or a supermarket, you'd see your customers. If you built a door with a mat that was 12 inches off the ground and people were constantly tripping on it, you'd change the mat. But we don't see that sort of stuff. People create content without any conception of its usage."
In a recent project at a large client, Gerry asked company employees questions about important HR policies, like whether they qualify for an unpaid leave option that would let them travel the world for six months without losing their job. He found 50% of the employees couldn't find the information and gave up. Another 20% thought they qualified but didn't, or thought they didn't qualify but did.
"It was a disaster. It was practically useless, right? People couldn't find it, or, when they could, they couldn't understand it. We went back to the people who wrote the content, presented them our results, and one of them said to me, 'Why are you telling me this? I just write the stuff.' "
"It's like you have the site's content creators down in a dungeon, 15 floors away from the people who actually use it. As the content travels through every floor, somebody is changing it. Then finally it gets to the user. Creating this massive disconnect between the production and the consumption of our content. Bridging that disconnect is the practice of task management."
Bringing the success rate to 100%
To manage tasks, Gerry takes a two-part strategy. First up, he says, you need to identify the top tasks.
Over the past few years, Gerry has been refining a user survey technique that helps teams identify their top tasks. This technique, which produces reliable results from relatively small numbers of users, can help a team hone in on the site's essential activities.
Gerry found that, for most web sites and intranets, a team can quickly discover the words or phrases -- he calls them Carewords -- that drive the top tasks. Once a team has identified these, they can begin to measure how well the site does.
Measuring the site's performance with the top tasks is the second part of the strategy. Studying each careword, both through the categories in the site's navigation and through the search engine, can give the team insight into the experience of current users. The team can elevate any hard-to-find content to the top of their design priorities.
With a simple suite of usability tests, that watch typical users follow through the top tasks, the team can tell when the content is easy to find and when it satisfies the users' objectives. The team can keep changing the site until they've arrived at a design that works every time.
The goal is to get the success rates for the top tasks to 100%.
The Practice of Task Management
"The practice of task management is that you manage the task," Gerry told us. "You get the team behind the tasks, not the technology, not the graphics or the content. You get them focused on improving the success rate.
"And then if, months down the line, you've done a really good job, you'll be ready when somebody says, 'We want to launch a new service or a new task.' You'll know your first question is, 'How might this impact our top tasks that are now running extremely well?'"
Are you managing your users' tasks?