Sometimes the thing you think absolutely won’t work does work. You need to be able to accept evidence that goes against your opinion. 

Jeff Sauro of Measuring Usability has written an excellent article on how to conduct a top task analysis. This is a survey technique I’ve developed over the last 10 years which asks people to scan a list of up to 100 tasks and vote for their top five.

“I was a bit skeptical when I read it a few years ago, but decided to try it,” Jeff states. “Since then, I've used his method of top-task ranking for a number of projects successfully.”

In presentations I have done over the years I have shown thousands of people the survey method and asked them what they thought of it. Shock and horror. Nobody thought it had a remote chance of working.

I stumbled on the top task survey method by accident. I was running card sorting workshops for tourism and I kept a list of the cards (Getting Here, Things to Do and See, Special Offers, etc.) as an appendix in the training manual I was handing out. After a while I noticed that people were "cheating." Instead of sorting the physical cards they were scanning the list (which was 140 items long!) and making decisions based on it.

I was surprised and annoyed. (I had gone to a lot of effort preparing all these lovely physical cards!) But people kept cheating. It wasn’t fair. So finally I decided to try an experiment. I removed the cards and handed out the task list. I got better and much faster results.

According to Jeff, there are two essential questions that must be answered first by a usability professional: “Who are the users and what are they trying to do?”

“While there are hundreds to thousands of things users can accomplish on websites and software interfaces, there are a critical few tasks that drive users to visit a website or use the software,” Jeff continues.

Prioritizing tasks is not a new concept. Having users rank what's important is a technique that's been used extensively in marketing and conjoint analysis. But having users force-rank hundreds or thousands of features individually would be too tedious for even the most diligent of users (or even the most sophisticated, choice-based conjoint).”

This is why Jeff was skeptical at first about the top tasks method. It forces people to choose from a very long list. I think it works because it overloads. It forces people to choose from the list only the things that truly matter to them. They are not discovering new things on the list, but rather doing rapid mental match-ups with things that are already very important to them.

A key advantage of the method is that you get a league table of tasks -- from the top tasks to the tiny tasks. This is very important because it is often the tiny tasks that disrupt the top tasks.

As Jeff sums it up: “Before starting any redesign and beginning prioritizing efforts, conduct a top-task analysis to be sure you're working on what users are really trying to accomplish!”