Q&A session with Gerry McGovern

Prior to our upcoming ‘Top Tasks’ Masterclasses in Edinburgh and London, Gerry McGovern recently took the time to have a Q&A session with us to give an insight into the history behind Top Tasks, the methodology and lots more.

Q1. How long has Top Tasks Management been around as a method?

A. It began to be developed around 2002-2003

Q2. Where did it come from – what gave you the original idea that turned into the Top Tasks method?

A. Around that period I was constantly travelling and doing workshops. I had created about 150 tasks connected with tourism—things people would want to do/need to know before choosing a destination. Regardless of where I went (from Denmark to New Zealand), I noticed the same types of tasks emerge (special offers, things to do and see, getting here and around). I also noticed that the faster people sorted and chose, the stronger the patterns. Initially, I used card sorting techniques but then discovered (to my great surprise) that you could give people a very long randomised list of tasks and ask them to vote on what was most important to them, and that when they voted a very small set of tasks would dominate.

Q3. What type of sites benefit the most from Top Tasks?

A. Large, complex sites where the growth in content and applications is outstripping the ability to manage. Sites which, because of the volume of tasks, are difficult to navigate and search. Sites where there is an internal view of what the customer wants that is quite different from what the customer actually wants. Top Tasks works just as well for intranets as public websites.

Q4. What are the outputs or deliverables from the method and how do companies use this?

A. In the first phase—Top Tasks Identification—you get a league table of task importance. This typically reveals a small number of tasks that repeatedly stand out as being of greatest importance to the end customer.

We also have category / demographic questions in the Top Tasks survey, so we can identify the top tasks of men versus women, for example; or potential customers versus current customers. This is very valuable data from a customisation/personalisation point of view.

Q5. After getting a solid understanding of customer’s top tasks, what can the company do next to apply that?

A. Once you’ve identified the Top Tasks, you really need to know how they’re performing and how to make them better. That’s where the Task Performance Indicator comes in. Let’s say downloading software is a top task, then the Task Performance Indicator allows you to measure with real customers how successful customers are at downloading software and how long it’s taking them. You do this by observing a carefully selected sample of customers as they try to complete the tasks.

Part of the process involves identifying the patterns that are causing failures or slowing the customer down and making recommendations in relation to how things can be improved. The aim is to have a model of management that judges success based on the success of the customer. This is what customer experience is truly about: making the life of the customer simpler, easier, faster.

Q6. One result of Top Tasks is that content is often removed from the site or intranet. Is there ever resistance from companies to removing the content and how do you overcome that?

A. Organisations seek to constantly justify their existence based on how much they produce; how much they publish. We often find that to improve the customer experience, 80-90% of a site’s content needs to be deleted. This is particularly true of older websites, where there tends to be a substantial build-up of out-of-date content. Organisations do resist such a major clean-up. However, when we run the Task Performance Indicator and show very high failure rates and wasted time because of such unnecessary content and features, that tends to win over management. Top Tasks is all about delivering evidence of what the real customer experience is like.

Q7. How does Top Tasks vary from other research methodologies such as IA exercises, content audits etc. Why do I need Top Task in this instance?

A. Top Tasks is designed more as a management model than a research methodology. It is an all-embracing customer-centric approach that seeks to understand what is most important to the customer. Once you’ve identified customers’ top and tiny tasks, that can really help information architecture design, for example. It also helps identify the content that needs to be targeted for removal. So, it has many uses.

Q8. Since the method focuses on content, what are the main digital trends that are likely to affect how people find and consume content?

A. In a way, Top Tasks doesn’t so much focus on content as on what the customer wants to do. So, if they want to check symptoms it focuses on what is the easiest, most accurate way to do that. That could be an application, a sophisticated search, etc. So, we don’t measure the content, but rather the answer—the task completion. Content drives much of the digital world but it’s important to focus not so much on the content itself but rather on the outcome the content is supposed to achieve.

Q9. Can you give an example of where Top Tasks delivered significant benefits?

A. Top Tasks has been used extensively within the European Union to simplify and streamline websites and content. The Canadian government follows the Top Tasks philosophy. Recently, GOV.UK announced that it would use the Top Tasks approach. Intranets such as those of Tetra Pak and Microsoft have successfully used Top Tasks. It has been used extensively within the technology industry by companies such as Cisco, IBM and NetApp. Many universities and municipalities have also used it.

Q10. What will you be covering in your workshops in Edinburgh and London in May?

A. The focus of the workshops will be to explain how to run a Top Task Identification and a Task Performance Indicator. It will be practical, with lots of specific how-to advice and case studies.


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