woman sitting on couch looking at her laptop with earphones in, cellphone next to her

'Top Tasks: A How-To Guide' Is a Must-Read for Those Undertaking Digital Transformation

8 minute read
Erik Hartman avatar
Gerry McGovern's "Top Tasks: A how-to guide" makes digital transformation a bit more doable.

Chances are high you've heard the term "top tasks" before. Top tasks are the main things that customers, citizens and employees want to do when they interact with you. It's what matter most to them. And what matters to your customers should matter to you.

Digital transformation claims that it puts the customer first. Digitally transformed organizations focus only on customer value, respond quickly to customer's needs by data-driven decision making and use digital technology as an enabler. So far so good.

But in practice it's a hell of a job to turn egocentric, political, siloed, slooooow organizations into a happy shiny bunch of customer-focused interdisciplinary empowered professionals who walk the talk of customer obsession. If you read about all the things that can go wrong in digital transformation and all the things that you have to do to make it successful, you might give up before you even start.

Start Your Digital Transformation With Top Tasks

Well, the best strategy is just to start. And with top task management, that's exactly what you do. You start doing things for the customer right away and improve things as you work on them. And continuously. No visionary Powerpoint slides, no 200-page strategy and architecture documents, no AI needed. Just start.

Gerry McGovern wrote a how-to guide on how to identify, measure and improve customer top tasks, called (appropriately enough) "Top Tasks: A How-to Guide." It's not the first time McGovern has written about top tasks, but this book is the result of 15 years of research and practice and is full of examples and step by step instructions that give good insight into how to do top task management.

The book consists of four chapters that lead readers from explaining what top tasks are about, to how to identify them, how to design a customer architecture, and finally how to analyze, present and use the results.

Why Top Tasks Matter

Chapter 1 of this 182 page book explains what top tasks are and what they do for you. With 15 questions, you can determine if top tasks are likely to benefit your organization. But the ultimate two questions are: does management recognize the problems and do they want to make the effort to change from an organization-centric to a customer-centric organization?

McGovern claims that top tasks are designed to get you right into the center of the world of the customer. They help to understand what matters most to them, and by increasing their success rates and reducing the time it takes to complete them, businesses will continuously improve these top tasks. This is digital transformation in a nutshell! In my opinion top tasks can help convince management that shifting to customer-centricity is doable but also very profitable.

Related Article: The Accidental Discovery of Top Tasks

Top Task Identification: Separate Tiny Tasks From Top Tasks

In the second chapter, McGovern explains how, in a statistically defensible manner, to separate the top tasks from the tiny tasks. Tiny tasks are the unimportant and mainly organization-driven things that clutter up your digital channels and search results. “When a tiny task goes to sleep at night, it dreams of being a top task.”

This part describes the core of the top task methodology. It leads you through the whole top task identification process. First you target your audience and define the scope of your research. The book also tells you who should be involved in your top task stakeholder group.

Next steps are to gather the tasks into a short, final list. A task is whatever your customer wants to do. Here McGovern offers a lot of tips and warnings on what are tasks and what are not tasks and how to build and collect tasks. He includes a lot of very helpful examples and explanations on how to deal with overlaps and duplicates, suggestions on wording and other issues. Quite a few top task efforts go off the rails because people didn't get the tasks right, and the examples and explanations you find here can help you get back on track.

It Makes No Sense ... But it Works

Show me another book that says: “What you are about to see is simply not common sense; it is counter-intuitive. But it … works.” In "Designing the Survey," McGovern presents a give or take 100-task survey question. The idea is that respondents select up to five things they really want to do. Confront any researcher with this method of conducting research and they'll say it will never work. But after 15 years with more than 300,000 respondents, the conclusion is it actually does work.

Setting up the survey in the right way is crucial, so McGovern gives ample advice on which questions to ask and not to ask. The examples he provides are helpful, and he includes some numbers on how many voters you need to deliver reliable data.

Related Article: How Emotion and Effort Can Make or Break Your Customer Experience Initiatives

It's in the Results

In "Analyzing and Presenting Results," McGovern explains, in full detail, what to include in your presentation of the results. For example, a valuable tip is to start with an overview of the demographics or profile of the voters, so your audience is comfortable the respondents are representative of the target group.

To explain how to perform and present the analysis, McGovern gives you examples from a top task research, including lists, charts, graphs and tables from real cases. These real world examples give tactical idea of how to go about delivering results in the most effective way.

Learning Opportunities

Customer Architecture: An Essential Part of Customer Success

The "Customer Architecture" part is a bit "in medias res" as they say in Latin. It starts with no introduction and it's only after you read it that you realize it's not part of the top task research methodology, but rather a description of how to design effective digital navigation. Which is nice, but it feels out of place (or fremdkörper as we say in German).

After reading the "Design a Customer Architecture" chapter, I had a sense of why McGovern included it. By contrast, this chapter included a proper introduction that states that top tasks is a solution for the entire set of tasks your customers wish to complete, not some add-on to the existing navigation. This is a critical point.

The chapter also includes instructions on how and where to present the top tasks and other tasks on a digital platform. It combines card sorting methodology with the top task methodology. With examples from the European Commission, McGovern explains how to recognize and deal with "dirty magnets" and other phenomena that can ruin the customer experience.

Task Performance Indicators Deliver Clear Indicators of Success or Failure

Top task management is a practical approach in digital transformation because of the task performance indicators (TPI). These indicators help you observe how real people attempt to complete their top tasks. TPIs provide ongoing management metrics to further improve your customer experience and to communicate the results with management.

TPIs deliver reliable metrics for success and failure of the task and for time on the task. It helps identify the challenges and to propose and implement solutions. TPI measuring is repeatable over time and McGovern proves with examples of the importance of continuous measurement and improvement.

With examples from OECD and the UK government, the book explains how you measure the task performance, how you present the results and how you improve on them. It's important to read this part carefully because the method is different from "classic" usability testing. But that's all explained in the book.

Related Article: How to Measure Customer Experience Beyond Net Promoter Score

Why Top Tasks Is a Must-Read for Everybody Doing Digital Transformation

McGovern does a great job explaining the top task methodology in detail. He provides ample examples and best practices, so after reading you know how to do it. Just as important, he shares common mistakes to watch out for. Top Tasks replaces his previous books on the top task methodology, although I still like the lay-out and instructions of "The Stranger's Long Neck," in which McGovern first introduced his ideas on task measurement.

The second edition of the Top Task book could use some improvements in the structure and layout of the "How tos." The first edition includes everything you need to know about top tasks, but at times it's a bit difficult to recognize where you are in the process and to quickly scan what the next steps are.

For example, the "Ongoing Management Metric" part on pages 19 - 22 is a 3-page summary of the whole book and the Top Task methodology. I think it would help readers a lot if the numbering and structure of that summary would refer to the next chapters. As it is, you really have to read through a lot of content to figure out what the actions are.

And I admit I'm still puzzled by the middle "Contact Architecture" part. It has valuable ideas and McGovern tries to relate the section to the top task research, but somehow I don't get it. I think some restructuring and rewording will do magic here. Let's say it's a "work-in-progress" part of the book, which has a lot of potential.

More Information on Top Tasks

For those looking to read more, customercentricindex.com provides more top task management information and instruments. For example, a survey template that helps you find out what your customers' real experience is with your website or app.

About the author

Erik Hartman

Erik M. Hartman (the Netherlands) is owner of the independent consultancy firm TIMAF (www.timaf.org).

About CMSWire

For nearly two decades CMSWire, produced by Simpler Media Group, has been the world's leading community of customer experience professionals.


Today the CMSWire community consists of over 5 million influential customer experience, digital experience and customer service leaders, the majority of whom are based in North America and employed by medium to large organizations. Our sister community, Reworked gathers the world's leading employee experience and digital workplace professionals.

Join the Community

Get the CMSWire Mobile App

Download App Store
Download google play