Top Tasks – A how to-guide

It’s been 15 years in the making, but Top Tasks began as an accident, something I had not planned, and initially, at least, something I didn’t want to happen.

Now, here it is. A book containing everything that I and the partners I’ve worked with have learned about how to implement Top Tasks. A detailed step-by-step guide on how to identify customer top tasks, design a better information architecture based on this data, and then measure and improve on ongoing basis how the top tasks are performing.

Back in 1996, a report on the potential of the Internet that I had written for the Irish government was published. One of the ideas in the report was about creating a type of online Irish community. Around 1998, this idea got significant investment and we set about trying to implement it. One of the challenges we faced was how to create a structure, an information architecture, a navigation system. We looked at many systems, including the Dewy library approach, but all had major issues.

The whole idea failed but some valuable lessons were learned. Information architecture is hard but it is essential. Over the years, I have found that confusing menus and links have had a majorly negative impact on the customer experience.

Around 2002, I became familiar with card sorting as a way to design more intuitive navigation. I created a case study based on tourism to a national destination. I had about 150 cards covering things like: Accommodation; Special offers; Getting here and around; Things to do and see, etc. I created about 15 sets of these cards and started including card sorting as part of my information architecture workshops. I had a special little box where I stored my cards. I was quite proud of it all.

Between 2002 and 2005, I was travelling extensively in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand. However, no matter where I went, people were sorting the cards into the same basic groups. A particular part of the exercise was to decide what would go on the homepage of this tourism website. I asked people to choose the 10 cards that they would put on the homepage. In order to get better results, I asked them to rank their top 10, giving 10 to the most important, and so on. To allow them to give their scores, I handed out a sheet listing all 150 tasks, with scoring boxes beside each task.

I should never have run this exercise before lunch. I told people that the sooner they had voted and handed in their sheets, the longer the lunch they’d have. That’s when I began to notice that people were cheating. People were not doing the exercise the way I had intended them to do it. The card sorting process was breaking down and I was quite annoyed because I had made a lot of effort creating all these cards.

Next issue I’ll tell you about how this cheating, these ‘errors’ people were making led me to the Top Tasks method. Because I didn’t discover it myself. I was against it. I thought it was wrong. I thought it would fail. It was the people attending my workshops who discovered it and forced me to see that they had discovered a much simpler and faster way than card sorting to identify what matters most (and what matters least) to customers.