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Bob GraatUser research

How you can improve your website by performing a top task analysis

By 25/06/2018 No Comments

Visitors do not visit a website to simply watch the design or to see how it is structured; they have a certain task they want to complete (e.g. ‘I want to buy book X’ or ‘I want to know more about service Y’). Every website (or other digital platform) has a small set of tasks which are most important to its users: we call these the ‘top tasks’. If these tasks can be completed fast and easily, the user’s satisfaction will rise and they will more probably buy your book or take your service.

In his book ‘The stranger’s long neck’, Gerry McGovern introduced a method called the ‘Top task analysis’ to identify these tasks. In this blogpost we will briefly address his theory and broadly explain which steps have to be taken to perform a top task analysis.

The Long Neck

McGovern says all visitors of your website are intelligent strangers who have a task to complete. Roughly 5% of the tasks accounts for 25% of the user’s demand (‘The Long Neck’). The website’s focus should be on easy completion of these tasks. The following division can be made:

  • Long Neck: roughly 5% of the tasks (and related content) accounts for 25% of the demand;
  • Body: 35% or so of the tasks (and related content) accounts for about 55% of the demand;
  • Long tail (and Dead Zone): 60% of the tasks (and related content) accounts for about 20% of the demand. The Dead Zone contains content which is outdated, not useful and is only in the way when users try to complete other tasks. Content inside the dead zone should be minimized.

To find out which tasks fall in which category for your website, a top task analysis can be executed. Based on the results, your optimization activities can focus on the top tasks.

Step 1: Setup a very long list of tasks

First, setup a list of tasks. Just open an empty Excel file and put every tiny task to be fulfilled on your website in there. Also enter tasks which cannot be achieved, but (for example) have been identified in user research. Double tasks will be eliminated later, just fill it with as many tasks as possible. Useful sources to derive tasks from are:

  • User research
  • Organization strategy
  • User feedback
  • Examine existing website
  • Analyze top search terms
  • Most visited webpages
  • Competitor/peer websites

In the Excel file, use the following columns and fill them in accordingly:

Task: task description (word/phrase)
Class: classification that the task phrase fits into
Source: origination of task phrase

Please find an example of this format (for an online book shop) below:

Task Class Source
Find book by author Search Website analytics
Find book by title Search Website analytics
Find book by ISBN Search Website analytics
Find best-seller top 10 Inspiration User journey research 2015
Browse books by category Inspiration User survey 2016
Put book in basket Ordering & payment Website analytics
Pay for book Ordering  & payment Website analytics
Order gift card Gift cards User survey 2016
Use gift card Gift cards User survey 2017
Download e-book E-books Website analytics

Once you think all tasks are in your list, proceed to the next step.

Step 2: Narrow down to a list which is still quite long

Ok, since we will present the list of tasks to our users, it cannot be too long, because it might scare them off. We will downsize the list to a maximum of 100 tasks by removing duplicates and merging similar tasks. For smaller companies the list will be shorter than for larger companies, so 100 is a maximum, not an absolute number.

You might think 100 is still quite a lot (and it is) and no user will take the time to assess such a long list. However, McGovern cites a variety of top tasks analyses for large organizations in which it worked. Over the years, he got over 60.000 users to do it, so check his book if you are not convinced.

Step 3: Rank the tasks

Users will be asked to choose and rank the five tasks most important to them using the final list of tasks (containing max. 100 tasks) created in step 2. This step is based on the following theory:

“The web is about human drives and emotions. A great way to understand these needs is to almost overload people with a very long list and get them to vote on the top five of most important things to them. What’s important to them jumps out from the subconscious.” McGovern, G. (2011). The strangers long neck: how to deliver what your customers really want online. London: A & C Black.

The following aspects are important for proper results:

  • Limit the number of choices to five or fewer.
  • Voting brings the participant’s choice to a new level of seriousness.
  • The less time people have to choose, the more accurate the choices become. For a list of 100 tasks, five minutes is recommended.

The survey can either be done with pen and paper or set up in an online survey tool like Surveymonkey.

Step 4: Identify top tasks

After the top task survey is set out and the results are in, add an extra sheet to your Excel file and add the following classes in columns:

Tasks: lists the tasks in order of their votes (highest vote on top).
Total vote: count of the vote each task received.
% of total vote: expresses each vote as a percentage of the total votes cast.
Cumulative vote: adds the vote percentages for the preceding tasks together.
Cumulative of total: adds the task percentages for the preceding tasks together. E.g. if there were 50 tasks voted on in this survey, each task represents 2% of the total. Thus, the first four tasks represent 8% of the total tasks voted on.

Based on this spreadsheet draw an (imaginative) line under the top 5% of tasks (so beneath the row in which the Cumulative of total column becomes 5%). Congratulations, you just found your top tasks! Usually these tasks will get around 25% of the votes (although this might vary). In the example below the tasks in bold are the top tasks.

Task Total vote % of total vote (10.000) Cumulative vote Cumulative of total
Find book by author 698 7,0% 7,0% 1%
Find book by title 674 6,7% 13,7% 2%
Pay for book 599 6,0% 19,7% 3%
Find book by ISBN 321 3,2% 22,9% 4%
Find best-seller top 10 307 3,0% 25,9% 5%
Download e-book 298 2,9% 28,8% 6%
Browse books by category 211 2,1% 30,9% 7%
Put book in basket 101 1,0% 31,9% 8%
Order gift card 56 0,5% 32,4% 9%
Use gift card 44 0,4% 32,8% 10%

Step 5: Improve top task performance via user research

So, by first identifying all user tasks for your website/tool and subsequently narrowing them down and ask users to rank them, we ended up with your top tasks.

With the top tasks at hand, research should be done to find out how easy it is for users to complete the tasks. Therefore, users must be invited to come over and execute the top tasks on your website or in your tool. Alternatively, a tool like Loop11 can be used to invite users to do a remote user test.

Once it is known what goes wrong when users try to complete the top tasks, improvements can be made to make it easier. Eventually this will allow users to complete their top tasks very fast and easily, making them happy users. And happy users love to buy your products or take your services, making you happy. So, after a top task analysis, in the end everybody’s happy.  🙂

Want to learn more?

Hopefully my recap and explanation of Gerry McGovern’s method was useful. His book ‘The Stranger’s Long Neck’ can be bought on Amazon and many other places.

For help on setting up a user test and performing user research, read our blogposts on our website or get some inspiration from the the interview with Bob or the catalog research case at Philips Lighting.

If you have any questions on the top task analysis or user research & improvements, please contact Bob or send an email to GriDD.

GriDD also provides training on digital marketing and core content modelling, which will both learn you techniques on how to perform user research.

And last but not least: we love to brainstorm and discuss about the future of user and customer experience in our Customer Experience meetup community, feel free to join!