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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Make users happy by focusing on top tasks

Most local gov webbies will probably already be aware that the focus of Socitm’s 2012 Better Connected review will be on managing top tasks and improving the user experience of Council websites. As a dyed-in-the-wool user experience fanatic I fully support this direction.

Whether your web team takes the Better Connected report with a pinch of salt, or work painstakingly to address all the reviewers’ findings, is neither here nor there, in my opinion. What is important is that Better Connected is aiming to address fundamental problems with the user experience of Council websites.

Now as a local gov web manager, I am painfully aware of the constraints we all work under as Council web teams. Resources and budget can be limited and Council websites can be sprawling, monstrous beasts to control, maintain and improve. And then there’s the governance issues and organisational politics we all have to deal with. Politics with a small ‘p’ and a big ‘P’. But with a bit of determination and a focus on top tasks, I think we really can improve the experience of citizens who have no choice but to Council websites to access certain public services.

On 15 September I attended Socitm’s top task event in London. I was speaking alongside Conor Moody and Kevin Jump from Liverpool Direct and (what an act to follow) the hugely entertaining Gerry McGovern. In the afternoon there were a series of workshops by the Better Connected reviewers and an RNIB accessibility expert. The event was put together by Martin Greenwood and the rest of the Socitm team.

In this context a top task is deemed to be:

the things that users come to your site to do most frequently

On a Council website examples of top tasks are:

  • finding out when your rubbish/recycling bins will be collected
  • checking school term dates
  • renewing a library book
  • paying council tax
  • finding bus routes and times
Disclaimer: in this post I may use the terms ‘citizen’, ‘user’ and ‘customer’ interchangeably.

Although I’ve given a similar talk before, I’ve embedded my updated slides from my talk below to provide some context for those that didn’t attend the event.


Here’s a quick summary of the main points I will take away from the event.

1. Don’t believe what users say, observe what they do through regular, remote user testing sessions

Gerry McGovern used a great example in his talk to demonstrate how easy it is for web professionals to think they understand how users behave, rather than observing how users actually behave. The two are often poles apart. I always love usability testing sessions because they are so eye opening. User testing gives your real insights into your users / customers and confidence in how to improve your website and web content.

But whilst we already do user testing, we don’t do it often enough. Recruiting users has proved to be time consuming and difficult. Gerry advised that we would be better off doing shorter, more frequent remote testing sessions using something like Go To Meeting to connect remotely to participants. This is something I’m pretty sold on now, having recently read Steve  Krug’s book Rocket Surgery Made Easy. If you’re doing user testing on a budget I would highly recommend Steve’s book. He famously has ‘a common sense approach to web usability‘ and provides very clear instructions, tips, guidance and checklists for user testing, which are all incredibly useful.

2. Get control of your content

Getting a handle on content governance is probably second most important thing we need to do to improve our website. If you have no control over what content is being created customer experience can really suffer. Devolved web publishing seemed like a great idea a few years ago. Complex content workflows were created with hundreds (I’m not kidding) of content, or CMS, authors and publishers, who are trained and given permissions to use the CMS. But where are we now?

  • We have thousands of pages and documents, making it increasingly hard for users to come to our website and quickly and easily carry out a task. As Gerry said confusing menus and navigation are one of the prime reasons websites fail.
  • Navigation and content development are not driven by user needs, but rather by the organisation’s perception of what users need. Web content authors and publishers need to own customer journeys. They need access to web analytics and customer feedback. They should carry out or observe user testing sessions to truly understand what customers need, what terminology they use and how they behave.
  • We have noticed that often web pages appear to be submitted for approval then approved almost instantly, showing that our approval process is not really adding any value to the process of web content publishing.

Re-gaining control of your content is not as easy as it sounds. We’re tackling this by:

  • Asking CMS authors who manage sections of the website to carry out content audits and identify what content to delete and improve. I’ve created a spreadsheet to do this based on the method outlined in Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy book and I’ll write a separate blog post in due course on how we’re approaching this.
  • Re-defining what kind of content governance is needed e.g. greater control through centralisation and defining specific processes and skills that are required.

3. Re-design your information architecture so there is just one way to navigate to top tasks

I have to admit this can be a daunting task, but more and more Councils are ditching the Local Government Navigation List standard and designing a top task focused IA like Liverpool City Council’s website. There may be similarities between the navigation on your Council’s website and other Council websites (or if you don’t work in local gov, on a competitor website), but you must remember website IA must be based on what your users need. So be inspired by similar websites, but don’t copy them!

Some of the methods we are hoping to use to re-design are IA are:

4. Don’t let the tiny tasks get in the way of the top tasks

“At night the tiny tasks go to bed and dream about being top tasks”

Gerry McGovern

It’s easier said than done, but as Gerry pointed out in his talk, sometimes the tiny tasks can make a customer’s journey on your website really difficult. They can also result in your customers mistakenly thinking they have got the right information to answer their question, when in actual fact they’ve got the wrong information. This is a disaster and when the customer realises their mistake, they are unlikely to trust your website again.

Kevin Jump highlighted how Liverpool have separated Council policies and strategies from service delivery on the Liverpool City Council website. Policies have to be on the site, but are in the About the Council section and don’t clutter up the top tasks pages of their website.

One of our biggest challenges is how we make our website work for customers, when it is also being used by our customer service advisers in the call centre as a knowledge-base. There’s a real conflict between focusing on making top tasks easy to complete for customers and providing information that may be useful to someone, but is only needed infrequently (the tiny tasks). Similarly you may have information on your website which is more aimed at staff and customer service advisers than customers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve not got it in for tiny tasks! I don’t want to remove all tiny tasks from our website, because they have a use. But taking Gerry’s advice we are planning to use hidden pages to provide links to the information that doesn’t meet user’s top tasks (i.e. the tiny tasks). We’ll also aim to gather evidence through user testing our tasks on where the tiny tasks are harming top tasks. Along the way there will be compromises to be made, but hopefully over time we’ll achieve a solution that works for customers and customer service advisers.

Managing top tasks requires a lot of research and constant, iterative user testing and tweaking.

Top Task management - an iterative process

But the more you do it, the easier it gets.

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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Learning about content strategy

Although I’ve been involved in the design, development and evaluation of websites for many years, one area that is relatively new to me is content strategy and management. A few months ago I took over a team that supports a fairly large team of content authors (up to 300, with around 80 or so regular authors) who publish content on our corporate website and intranet.

I’ve spent a little while finding out more about our existing governance models and the support, training and guidance we provide to our content authors. It’s becoming clear to me that content is a really important asset in the organisation, that takes up quite a bit of resource. Using a guesstimated timescale of 20 minutes to create and publish an average web page (probably a woefully inadequate estimate) I did a quick calculation based on the average number of pages that are published per week by our CMS authors. E.g.

[No. pages published per week] x 20 minutes = a shocking amount of time

My noddy calculation indicated that, as an organisation, we may well spend a considerable number of hours a month writing and publishing web content. And when I converted it into a monetary figure it was even more startling.

Needless to say I was delighted to stumble across Content Strategy Week on the Johnny Holland blog. A series of excellent posts with lots of juicy tips and practical ideas.

Johnny Holland Content Strategy Week

Within the organisation I work for we have a comprehensive set of content guidelines for content authors on the intranet. But pages of guidelines can be daunting to authors who are newly trained in writing for the web and using the CMS. As the web team have more and more demands placed on us, we need to find way to reduce the amount of support calls we deal with daily.

We recently made various improvements to our CMS, which is based on a Microsoft product but has been customised in-house. We’ve also discussed ideas like using Cantasia to create small ‘how to’ videos and the possibility of setting up a content author community online to supplement existing offline groups. These are ideas we’ve toyed with but not turned into a reality yet.

So it was reassuring to see Sally Bagshaw’s post about producing quality content with multiple authors, recommending pretty much everything we’ve thought of, but laying it out very clearly into three main concepts:

  • Create a usable style guide
  • Encourage learning and collaboration
  • Use an author-friendly CMS

“With a little planning, it is possible to have great content on a site with many contributors. Dust off your style guide, keep everyone connected, and make sure your CMS is working for you and not against you.”

Read Sally’s post on creating quality content with multiple authors in full.

I also found Rahel Bailie’s post on the content lifecycle really useful for thinking about how the development of content works in the context of a web project and in relation to other UX processes.

“The notion of a content lifecycle is comforting to anyone involved in content. It creates order from chaos, predictability for content production and maintenance, and a mental model to explain content to others.

Not only is it comforting, it’s exciting for design, development, and business stakeholders. Business runs on predictable, repeatable processes, and content lifecycle adds content to the roster of replicable models. For designers and developers, content lifecycle is a tool and an extension of the user-centered design process. For businesses, a content lifecycle is a model in which content can be quantified and ROI measured—exciting stuff, indeed.

Most exciting of all, the content lifecycle helps users get the content they need, when and how they need it—the holy grail of their content search.”

Read Rahel’s post on closing the loop in content strategy in full.

I am also starting to read Kristina Halvorson’s book on Content Strategy. So hopefully after all that I’ll be much more clued up!

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