(Chapter 14 from Transform: A Rebel’s Guide for Digital Transformation)
Top tasks versus tiny tasks
When we got citizens of Liverpool to vote on what they wanted from Liverpool City Council, we found top tasks such as libraries, leisure facilities, roads, waste collection. When we analyzed the relationship between publishing activities for the council on its website and citizens’ top tasks, we found an inverse relationship. The more important the task was to the citizen, the less was being published on it, the less important it was to the citizen, the more that was being published on it.
The tiny tasks are very often wrapped up in the ego of the organization. They include: senior management profiles, speeches, news and press releases, annual reports, and general information about the organization. You are in dangerous territory when you come up against the ego of the tiny tasks, so tread carefully. Never make it about your opinion or your thinking. Always use customer data. Most organizations are willing to change once a compelling case is made. When Liverpool got the data on what citizens really wanted, it made the changes to become much more citizen-centric as can be seen from the following page.
Remember: when a tiny task goes to sleep at night, it dreams of being a top task! Tiny tasks have high energy and ambition, and there are so many of them. Left unchecked, they proliferate and clutter the search, navigation and content. Most web teams I’ve met are being nibbled to death by tiny tasks. They don’t have time to focus on what really matters — the top tasks — because the organization is so vanity prone, inward-looking and organization-centric.
Steps in Top Tasks management
Top Tasks is a model of management that puts the customer at the center by measuring success based on the success of the customer at completing their top tasks. It involves the following steps:
1. Comprehensively engage the organization in a process of gathering customer tasks.
2. Work with key stakeholders to refine this initial list of tasks and come up with a final shortlist.
3. Get a representative sample of customers to vote, typically about 400.
4. Create a league table of tasks from the one with the highest vote to the one with the lowest vote.
5. Based on the results, select approximately the top 10 tasks and create very specific questions to test these tasks.
6. Use remote online, moderated testing, give these tasks to a representative sample of customers, and ask them to try and complete them. Record these sessions. Typically, you will need about 18 people.
7. Measure the success rate and the time on task. These become your key outcome-based metrics.
8. Carefully analyze the customer behavior and identify the core problems that are negatively impacting your metrics. Implement fixes for these problems. Also look out for positive patterns of behavior that you could further encourage.
9. Use steps 6 to 8 as your model of continuous improvement, and as your core Key Performance Indicators.
Gathering customer tasks
There are two things you’re doing here:
1. Collecting all relevant customer tasks, activities, micro moments — whatever you want to call them.
2. Initiating a change management process that gets key stakeholders thinking in detail about customer needs.
In many ways, the second part is more important than the first. Gathering the tasks becomes your excuse to talk to as wide a range of people as possible. It is vital you go out and start building bridges here. Every conversation you have is a potential for selling the need to be more customer-centric, for explaining the nature of the customer in the digital environment (impatient, skeptical, task-focused). You’re sowing seeds here, preparing the ground for the task results — and the customer centric change — that will come later.
There are two essential sources for tasks:
1. The customer
a. Surveys, research
b. Support requests
c. Social media, blogs, communities
d. Search data both external search engines and from your own site
e. Website / app data analysis: most popular sections, downloads, etc.
f. A task collection survey that uses an open-ended question to ask people what their top three tasks are.
2. The organization
a. Corporate philosophy, strategy, mission, vision
b. Stakeholder interviews and reviews
c. Current website, app analysis
d. Competitors / peers
e. Industry media
The customer sources should always outweigh the organization sources. Always try and think from the world of the customer. If you are dealing with the subject of cancer, for example, collect the tasks from the perspective of the people who may have to deal with cancer. Be as complete as possible from their side, from their point of view. Your organization may not yet be dealing with tasks that are important to them, but it’s important to find out from the broadest possible perspective what matters to them, rather than what your organization has or is capable of delivering right now. Remember, organize around the life of the customer.
Some say: Why go to so much bother? Why not just rely on search and site analytics? There are indeed circumstances where this approach can work, particularly where there is lots of historical data, and strong internal consensus on what the top tasks are, and more importantly, where there is very little pressure from tiny tasks. It really doesn’t matter what method you use once you can:
1. Clearly identify the top tasks
2. Clearly identify the tiny tasks
Remember that search and site analytics do not always give the complete picture. Page visits reflect what you have, not necessarily what customers want. There may be tasks that you don’t have content for — so it’s unlikely they will show up in search and site data. And analysis of page views often reflects an amalgam of tasks; it’s hard to separate the top tasks on these pages from the tiny tasks.
Search is a window into customer behavior, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, when we worked on the BBC intranet, we found they had a feature called “Top Searches” on their homepage. The problem was that once they published the top searches list, these terms no longer needed to be searched for, so in time a new list of top searches emerged!
When a website has a very bad navigation and information architecture, searches tend to be for top tasks because people depend on search more. However, when you have a very simple and well organized environment, search tends to be for exceptions. So, search results can be a mixed bag and need to be interpreted properly. Similarly, top tasks tend to get bookmarked, or people just go straight there out of habit, so such top tasks won’t show up in search results.
Lots of people search for “remove conditional formatting” on the Excel section of the Microsoft website. Initially, Microsoft created a page explaining how to remove conditional formatting, but no matter how many times they revised the page, the satisfaction was always very low. After doing more extensive research, they discovered that the term “remove conditional formatting” was a symptom of the larger task of formatting in Excel. When they deleted the page on conditional formatting and sent people who search for “remove conditional formatting” to the overall page on how to format, satisfaction jumped. So, the words and terms that come up in search are not always a true reflection of the real task of the customer. Search is thus one input into the development of the customer task list.
Refining the tasks
A typical task gathering exercise for a large organization may collect between 300 and 500 tasks. When you’re doing the collecting don’t try too much to edit. Just make sure you’ve been as comprehensive as possible. Store the tasks in a spreadsheet.
What is a task? People assume that a task must always have a verb. But in a digital world where attention is at a premium, the less words — and the more specific these words are — the better. That means that you avoid verbs where possible. For example, do you really need “Find a Job” when you can just use “Jobs”. You don’t need “Get Pricing” when you can just use “Pricing”. So, avoid verbs unless the verb is absolutely essential to the meaning of the task.
Your goal during this stage is to get this list of tasks below 100. In most of our task voting surveys, the final list is between 60 and 80. If possible take your time to do this. Typically, we allocate two weeks for gathering the tasks and four weeks for refining them. That’s because:
1. We want to involve as wide a group of stakeholders in the process as possible.
2. It’s very difficult to refine tasks properly in one go. We tend to have an average of two 2-hour shortlisting session a week (giving a total of about 6 sessions). This allows the list to settle but also allows stakeholders the time to go back to their groups and discuss specific issues that may have come up with a particular task.
You need to get a group together that will do the refining / shortlisting. This group typically has 3–8 people who represent the major stakeholders (Marketing, Sales, Support, IT, HR, etc.). The group should have experienced people who understand the organization and the customer. Otherwise, it will be very slow going as you attempt to reduce the size of the list. The group should be stable. If people are joining or leaving, then that really slows down the process. If there is an important stakeholder that you know is very busy, then involve them near the end of the process in an individual stakeholder review meeting.
The most obvious initial thing to do — which you can do on your own — is to get rid of exact duplicates and very strong overlaps. These will occur because you are compiling tasks from multiple sources. You want to avoid brand and product names, as well as tool and system names. Ignore tasks that are only for a specific audience or demographic. (Instead of “Treatment for women” use “Treatment”.)
There’s a lot of overlap in the tasks in the preceding table which needs to be cleaned up. At the end of the process, you’ll probably end up with two tasks: Make an appointment; Appointment reminder. Or perhaps just one task: Appointments (make, remind)
As the shortlisting process nears an end, and the list is around 100, show it to key stakeholders for their feedback. The final list should be a consensus, but always make sure that it reflects the world and language of the customer. Sometimes, we allow a few tiny tasks from the organization into the list, just to show later that they get hardly any votes.
Getting customers to vote
Once you’ve got your final task list, you then need your customers to vote on this list. Let’s say, for example, that you’ve a final list of 70 tasks. Let’s say you put it together into a single question. You ask people to quickly scan the list and choose the 5 most important tasks to them. The question would look like this:
I know that you’re thinking that this is some sort of joke, right? I couldn’t be serious, right? As crazy as it looks, it works. In the last 10 years, we have done over 400 similar surveys with close to 400,000 people voting.
There’s method to the madness. This crazy survey is designed this way because we want to find out what really matters to people — what they do versus what they say they do. The very length and overload of the survey forces the gut instinct of the customer to kick in. You don’t “read” the list; rather, you quickly scan it and the tasks that really matter to you jump out.
Using the results
The core purpose of the task identification survey is to clearly identify the top tasks and the tiny tasks. Every time we do this survey (and we have done it more than 400 times in 30 languages), we find similar patterns to what you see in the following pie chart for the OECD, an economic and policy advice organization.
The pie chart is broken up into quartiles of the vote. There were a total of 70 tasks that OECD customers were asked to vote on.
1. 4 tasks get the first 25%.
2. 6 tasks get the next 25%, so 10 tasks got the first 50% of the vote — the Top Tasks.
3. 11 tasks get from 50% to 75% of the vote.
4. 49 tasks get the final 25% of the vote — these are the tiny tasks. So, 4 tasks — top tasks — get as much of the vote as the bottom 49 tiny tasks. That gives a clarity of importance and focus.
107,000 people voted in 28 countries and 24 languages. The top tasks were almost identical in every single country of the European Union.
We also ask organizational team / stakeholders to vote on a copy of the survey. When we did that with the OECD, here’s what we got.
We see that there is strong empathy and understanding between how the team and customer view the importance of tasks, with one exception. The team thinks “Overview of what the OECD does” is four times more important than the customer does. This method allows you to pinpoint with data where there are organizational blind spots, where the organization is out-of-sync with the customer.
You now have the vital data that allows you focus on what really matters to your customers — the top tasks. As we have seen, many organizations focus on launching more tiny tasks and over time that leads to a complex and overloaded digital environment where everybody loses. So, we now need to find out how well the top tasks are performing, and whether tiny tasks are indeed hurting the performance of top tasks.