Websites will achieve maximum value when they focus on the tasks of their customers, not the technology or content.Who will use this? How will they use it? These should be two of the most important questions asked when managing a website. Until they are answered with absolute clarity, the website does not have solid foundations.
The Design of Everyday Things is a groundbreaking book by Donald Norman. In it he identifies a critical and incredibly common flaw in how a great many technologies are purchased.
Norman writes about a nightmare telephone system that his university had installed that drove everyone crazy. "The purchase took several years of committee work and studies and presentations by competing telephone companies, and piles of documentation and specifications," he writes.
"I myself took part, looking at the interaction between the telephone system and the computer networks, ensuring that the two would be compatible and reasonable in price. To my knowledge, nobody ever thought of trying out the telephones in advance."
In an article published in 2005, Norman suggests that good design is based on a "deep understanding of the activities that were to be performed: call this Activity-Centered Design." Norman stresses that activities are not the same as tasks. "There is a subtle difference," he writes. "I use the terms in a hierarchical fashion. At the highest levels are activities, which are comprised of tasks, which themselves are comprised of actions, and actions are made up of operations."
I understand the distinction Donald Norman is making, but it is a little too subtle for me, particularly when it comes to the Web. The Web is a basic, task-driven place. Thinking about tasks gives a greater degree of clarity and focus.
Communications sees the world from a content perspective. I see websites that claim to have sections for students, for business people, for families. And indeed they may have lots of content that is vaguely directed towards an audience. But they often don't have any useful tasks for the customer to complete.
I was at a telecom company website once, and it had a link for students. I clicked on the link and the first sentence on the page was. "A mobile phone can be used to chat." There were no free text minutes to sign up to, no special discounted plan for students to sign up to. Nothing to do except read incredibly useless content.
When we put the task at the center of the web management process, we cut away the clutter and the waffle. And we also-in a very real sense-put the customer at the center of the process. What we may find is that our most common tasks are useful for a wide range of customers. If so, we don't need customer segmentation on the website. We just need to focus on the task and on making it easier and faster to complete.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.