Top Tasks - A how-to guide

Top tasks are what matter most to your customers. By identifying and continuously improving top tasks you will deliver a better customer experience and increased organizational value.

People are more powerful, skeptical, and impatient today than they’ve ever been. They want what they want now through the device they have at hand now. People are extremely demanding these days, and it’s only going to get worse.

This changes the relationship between the organization and the customer. Do you remember that thing called “control?” It used to be that organizations had a lot of control over the customer. The product didn’t need to be that fantastic as long as you had fantastic marketing and advertising. If you worked for the government, then citizens just had to accept what they were given. And if the interface was clunky and unintuitive, then they always had the manual or the support staff. That world is fading.

Organizations need to make things simple today, really simple. They need to understand the customer/user much better. The design of their products must be genuinely intuitive—so simple even a distracted adult can understand it.

The truth is that organizations love complexity, verbosity, and glut. Giving a website to an organization is like giving a pub to an alcoholic. Every hour is Happy Hour as they publish, publish, publish. Designing apps is pretty much the same, as ‘featuritis’ spreads rapidly. Typically, when organizations delete up to 90 percent of what they have, everything begins to work much better. Yeah, I’m serious. Totally, totally serious.

  • The Norwegian Cancer Society reduced their website size from 4,000 down to 1,000 pages. Donations and satisfaction rose substantially as a result.
  • Liverpool City went from 4,000 pages to 700 and saw lots of positive results.
  • Telenor Norway went from 4,000 to 500 pages. Sales and customer satisfaction went up. Customer support inquiries went down.
  • The UK National Trust reduced their web presence from 50,000 to 9,000.
  • The U.S Department of Health deleted 150,000 out of 200,000 pages. Nobody noticed.

What? Why? Because organizations excel at creating vast quantities of useless stuff. What matters most to the organization often matters least to the customer. In a great many organizations we have worked for we have found an inverse relationship between the importance of something to customers and the amount of effort the organization was putting into it. Crazy, isn’t it? But I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

It’s those damn tiny tasks! When a tiny task goes to sleep at night, it dreams of being a top task. And when it wakes up it is full of ambition and ego. Lots of digital teams are being nibbled to death by a deluge of tiny organizational tasks that will clutter an interface and clog a search. They will drain vital resources away from the continuous effort required to make customer top tasks simpler and better.

Top Tasks helps you fight ego with evidence—evidence of what customer top tasks are and how these tasks are performing. Evidence of what the real customer experience is like.

What Top Tasks does for you

Top Tasks is a way of managing the online customer experience by understanding and improving what matters most to customers. It is based on the following principles:

  • That the most important thing to a customer when they are online is the task they want to complete.
  • That in any environment or general activity (health, buying a car, choosing a university, etc.) there are top tasks. There are roughly ten top tasks in any particular environment.
  • That organizational goals will be reached more easily and quickly when customer top tasks are well-served.
  • That we can reliably identify these top tasks with clear data and evidence.
  • That we can reliably measure how successful customers are at completing these top tasks, and how long it is taking them.
  • That we can build a highly intuitive information architecture based on top tasks data.
  • That if we focus on an ongoing basis on increasing success rates and reducing time-on-task for these top tasks we will deliver an excellent customer experience.

Top Tasks has been developed as a result of 15 years of research and practice. It has been used in more than 30 countries and languages. Over 300,000 people have participated. Large organizations such as Cisco, Toyota, Microsoft, IBM, European Union, Tetra Pak, the BBC, and Google have successfully used Top Tasks. It has been used a great many times by small and medium municipalities, universities, intranets, associations, and businesses in countries such as Norway, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. It’s been road-tested. It works.

Is Top Tasks right for you?

The more times you answer “Yes” to the following questions, the more likely Top Tasks is to benefit your organization:

  1. Do you have a large, complex website or app and have the feeling that things are getting out-of-control?
  2. Is there internal disagreement as to who your customers are and what they really want to do?
  3. Is there a lack of empathy for and understanding of your customers’ top tasks within your organization?
  4. Is there a lack of quality customer data available?
  5. Is the focus of digital strategy on potential customers, with current customers being neglected?
  6. Is there a lack of interaction with and observation of customers?
  7. Are content and apps making things hard to find and hard to navigate?
  8. Is much of this content and apps out-of-date?
  9. Is there rapid, out-of-control growth of content and apps?
  10. Is there low customer demand for much of this stuff?
  11. Is much of the content and apps of low quality?
  12. Are things very ‘silo’-driven, with a lack of cross-organizational collaboration and cooperation?
  13. Is it a launch-and-leave culture driven by projects and campaigns, rather than one of continuous improvement?
  14. Are decisions generally based on opinion, politics, and ego?
  15. Does the organization like to communicate at the customer, rather than truly listen to them?

The more you have answered ‘yes’ to the above questions, the more potential Top Tasks has to benefit your organization — potential — because you need to answer ‘yes’ to the following two questions as well:

  1. Does management recognize it has a problem?
  2. Do they want to make the effort to change?

Is there a genuine desire within your organization to transform and become more customer-centric? Do they really want to deliver a great and genuine customer experience? Is there a true desire to change the culture? Are they driven to become:

  • Customer-obsessed
  • Evidence-based
  • Continuously improving
  • Silo-bridging
  • Simple and clear
  • Transparent and open

Because that’s what customers are expecting of organizations these days. It is the customer who is setting the agenda. It is the customer who feels in control. That’s the shift. From organization-centric to customer-centric. And Top Tasks is designed to get you right into the center of the world of the customer. To understand what matters most to them (their top tasks), and to be able to continuously improve these top tasks by increasing their success rates and reducing the time it takes to complete them.

Top Tasks allows you to stand in the shoes of your customers, to see the world as they see it, to feel the pain and frustration that they feel. You will have statistically reliable evidence. You will be able to say:

  • These are the customers’ top tasks.
  • Here’s how they’re performing.
  • Here’s what we need to do to make things better.

Top Tasks works whether you provide content, software, websites, or apps. It works for employees in intranets and digital workplaces, as well as for customers and citizens. Wherever you’ve got complexity and politics, Top Tasks can give you a clear path forward to deliver a truly excellent customer experience.

Who Top Tasks is less well suited for

  1. For immature digital environments (websites, apps), where customer experience is not really taken seriously by management, who instead demand cliché images, brochureware, and who think they can control the message and the journey of the customer.
  2. For traditional ‘brand’ heavy organizations, where the brand is low on information but high on image and emotion. Top Tasks works much better for a Cisco than it does for a Coca-Cola, for example.
  3. For traditional, hierarchical, ego-driven organizations.
  4. For organizations that are very distant from their customers and where it is very difficult to get in touch with customers.
  5. For very small websites and apps with only a few pages and small customer bases.

Ongoing management metric

Top Tasks is designed to be an ongoing management model for managing the customer experience. It is made up of:

  1. Top tasks identification
  2. Customer architecture design
  3. Task Performance Indicator (TPI)

Task identification involves finding out what matters most (top tasks) and what matters least (tiny tasks) to customers. It involves:

  1. Collecting a list of all possible tasks that customers may want to complete.
  2. Refining this list until it is between 50 and 100 tasks.
  3. Getting in the region of 400 customers to vote on this list and choose their top tasks.
  4. Creating a task league table from the results; from the top tasks (the most voted for) to the tiny tasks (the least voted for).

A customer architecture gives you the foundations for highly-intuitive navigation. It involves:

  1. Getting about 15 customers to rank the top 30 or so tasks from the task identification vote.
  2. Developing a hypothetical classification from this ranking.
  3. Getting more customers to test this classification by giving them about 30 task instructions.
  4. Refining this classification over the course of three phases until it achieves at least an 80% success rate.

The Task Performance Indicator (TPI) is about giving you reliable, defensible success and time metrics for customer top tasks. It allows you to say: “This task has a 40% failure rate and even those who succeed at completing it are taking four times too long to complete it.” It involves:

  1. Selecting the 8-12 top tasks for measurement, based on the task identification voting results.
  2. Developing task instructions for each of these top tasks.
  3. Selecting 13-18 customers who will be asked to try and complete these task instructions on the website or app in question.
  4. Carrying out the measurements with these customers in a moderated way, using a remote meeting service such as GoToMeeting or WebEx. Recording audio and the screen of each customer being observed.
  5. Carefully moderating each measurement session with the objective of:
    a) Ensuring that each participant clearly understands each task instruction and what they are expected to try and do;
    b) Creating as natural and realistic an environment as possible; one that allows the participant to focus on the task itself with as little distraction as possible;
    c) Clearly identifying task success rates and time spent on the task;
    d) Identifying the key causes of task failure and slow completion times.
  6. Coming up with clear recommendations that will reduce failure and time-on-task.
  7. Reporting results to management. Drawing up plans for changes based on what has been observed, making those changes, measuring and reporting again and again and again. (TPI is a management model and an ongoing process, not a project.)

While reliable metrics of the customers’ actual experience are a key deliverable of the TPI, perhaps its most important deliverable is the ongoing empathy, understanding, and insight it allows us into the customer experience. The biggest thing missing today in most organizations is empathy for the customer. The number one reason for this lack of empathy is that employees, who are creating content, code, visuals, for customers, rarely actually see customers using their work.

The TPI is typically run on a six-monthly or yearly basis. It is not meant to be the only observation of customers done by any means. Its purpose is to give solid management figures of customer task performance, and by extension, the customer experience. In between TPI measurements, you can run scaled-down versions of the TPI, or standard usability testing, A/B testing and/or data analytics. In fact, it is advised that not a week should go by without observation of customer behavior. It’s all about managing based on what customers are actually doing.

The TPI will allow you to make statements such as:

  • 40 percent of customers are failing to complete their top tasks. Those who do succeed are taking an average of four minutes longer than they should.
  • Since the last TPI, we made specific changes. These changes have resulted in a ten percent overall increase in the success rate. Time-on-task has been reduced by an average of 15 seconds.
  • We predict that if we make the following changes, we will see an average of a five percent increase in the task success rate, and an average of a ten-second reduction in time-on-task.

It’s essential that you are measuring and continuously improving top tasks. If you measure and then improve tiny tasks (low demand tasks), then you may well make the overall customer experience worse. Why? Because to improve a tiny task:

  • You may make it easier to find in the navigation by, for example, adding more links about this task. That can distract from the links for the top tasks. It essentially creates clutter.
  • You may make it more findable through search functions. Optimizing tiny tasks in search functions nearly always has a negative impact on top task ‘findability’ through search functions.
  • You may create more features or content for it — that means more stuff for your customers to wade through as they try and complete their top tasks. It’s more stuff for you to manage — a great many teams spend their time creating new features and content for tiny tasks, instead of continuously improving top task content.

In summary, Top Tasks Management allows you to:

  1. Clearly identify the top and tiny tasks your customers are seeking to complete.
  1. Design an intuitive classification for your customers.
  2. Accurately measure completion rates and times for the top tasks.
  3. Identify the causes of task failure and slow completion times.
  4. Make changes.
  5. Measure again. Did the changes work? How can success rates be improved even further? How can time-on-task be reduced even more?
  6. Continuously measure and improve, measure and improve, measure and improve those customer top tasks.

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