Quality content plays a critical role in self-service design. Often a small change in a link, heading or sentence, can lead to dramatically higher task completion. 

First, a few definitions. By content I’m essentially talking about words: both the words in the text on a page and the words in the navigation and search results. During years of testing people’s attempts at completing tasks online we have found that the right words are the single biggest contributor to task success.

By self-service I’m essentially talking about the web, where we go to do things on our own. We are not interacting with another human who is directing us through a task. Now it might be that if we get stuck on a task we then open a chat with someone. That can still be considered as self-service.

Not every task is suitable to self-service. The optimal self-service task is one where there is high demand and the task is relatively simple and fast to do. The more complex the task is and the longer it takes to do, the more suited it is to a phone or face-to-face interaction.

Task complexity has many aspects. What are the implications of getting the task wrong? Could the person suffer major consequences from a financial, health or personal perspective as a result of doing the wrong thing?

Self-service encourages speed and impatience. It is not necessarily good for decisions that require reflection. I recently had a chat with Tom Loosemore, who is deputy director at the UK Government Digital Service. He was talking about divorce as a task, which throws up some interesting issues. Do you really want to make divorce easy to do online? “Get divorced in three easy steps?” There are many tasks where it really is better to talk to a professional or to pause for a while and contemplate.

Another problem is that complex tasks tend to require large quantities of complex content. Most of this content was historically not written for ordinary people but rather for the professionals (doctors, lawyers, HR specialists) who did the advising. Making all this content easily available online may in fact lead to worse outcomes, rushed and incorrect decisions.

Complex tasks also tend to be done infrequently. Self-service thrives on high frequency, repeated tasks. If you only do something rarely, it’s usually better to get help from someone who does the task all the time.

Complex tasks tend to be what I call tiny tasks from the point of view of demand and frequency. However, they are far from "tiny" from the point of view of content. Some years ago Liverpool City found that far more content was being produced for their customers’ tiny tasks than for their top tasks.

Simplification of complex task content may not be the answer if it increases the risk of people seeking simple solutions for complex problems. Also, high volume complex content seriously impacts search and navigation, often smothering the content for the top tasks.

When it comes to self-service design, content is both the solution and the problem. Publishing the "right" content is a significant management challenge that most organizations haven’t even scratched the surface of.