It's a safe bet that the amount of information online will just keep growing forever, like an ever-expanding digital universe.

But continuously adding more content to your own website may actually harm your user experience and your business unless it's done with your customers' goals in mind.

In usability tests, we see a recurring problem: people unable to find what they seek due to irrelevant information getting in the way and poorly labeled links.    

The accidental haystack

Piling on more content increases the haystack within which a visitor tries to find their needle - that is, the specific task they came to do.

Haystack represnting website content

Why does this happen? There are a few reasons, including internal pressures to promote certain content.

Even allowing everyone to access the content management system, which sounds wonderfully democratic since everyone can publish what they want, often results in trivial or redundant content getting in the way of users performing their tasks. 

If your key management metric is simply the number of pages on our site, or the number of different pages visited on the site, just adding more content may look like a great success.  If your success metric is the percentage of people able to do what they want to on our site, constantly adding content may well be less successful.   

Many also find it easier to add content than to remove it. Indeed, removing things can often be met with resistance: 

  • "We've got a team of content writers and they worked really hard creating that. So we must keep it on the site."
  • "Look, the analytics show that 7 people visited that page last year - we can't let them down."
  • "Yes, but those pages were Mr. McManager's idea. He's important so better let's not touch it."

It's worth considering what a site's content is actually for. After all, a great webpage is not something to simply look at - it's something to do practical things with.

Great customer experiences happen when people can easily perform their tasks such as finding information, downloading something, getting in touch, buying something, comparing, deciding and more. Let your customers do these easily and they will come back repeatedly.

All tasks are not created equal

Most sites have so many things that can be done on them it is hard to decide which ones to prioritise. Some things - the 'top tasks' - are very important for many people and add great value to the site and user experience.

Typically, there are also many relatively unimportant tasks that add far less value. However, these 'tiny tasks' are often given undue prominence which can lead to competing links and calls to action.

How to discover your users' tasks 

Using an approach called top task management helps to identify and focus on what really matters to customers to reduce complexity and improve customer experience. 

A first step is to perform a top tasks identification, an innovative user research method developed by Gerry McGovern.  This is performed over several steps that lead to a poll asking site visitors and other customers to select their most important tasks with the organisation.  

Each participant votes on their top five tasks from a randomised list of potential tasks for the site. The data typically shows a pattern of four to six top tasks getting about 25% of the votes, with the remainder extending into a 'long tail' of tiny tasks. An example of this is seen in the results for the European Commission which also described in detail their process and results. 

top tasks analysis showing 6 tasks that take 25% of the vote

Information such as this helps organisations review their navigation information architecture, re-prioritise their content and ensure that their site supports the users' top tasks. This gives you the best of both worlds: better access to the top tasks and clear signposting to everything else through user-centred navigation.

And if some content needs to be removed, you have a solid basis to make those decisions based on the user task priorities.

The effects can be significant. Liverpool City Council redesigned its site after identifying their customers' top tasks and reduced the site from 4,000 pages to 700. This delivered a 400% increase in people transacting online and substantially fewer support phone calls. This was a powerful result for a local council needing to save money by making better use of its website. 

Top task management provides insightful results that can be applied to make a real difference to that very important performance metric – your customers' ability to do what they want on your site.

As a customer experience method, top tasks management has proven very useful for redesigning digital services around the users' needs, especially for large, information-heavy sites or intranets supporting lots of tasks for a wide variety of users.

Chris Rourke

Published 26 March, 2018 by Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke is Managing Director of User Vision and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (4)

James Robertson

James Robertson, Digital Content Manager at Solicitors Regulation Authority

Gerry McGovern is one of the 2 people whose email newsletters I actually seek out and read; his top tasks methodology is very useful and - as mentioned here - gives you the ammunition needed to reduce the number of pages and resulting pointless complexity on any given site, and thereby boost the conversion rate and number of people using other, more expensive communication channels.

However, what cannot be overstated is the degree of pushback you will get when you propose removing content. I have seen full-blown enterprise CMS's that literally had no way whatsoever of deleting a page - or archiving it, or removing it. The idea that you would want to ever remove content had never crossed the mind of the software designers or the company who purchased it.

Then you have the way that content creators are managed: they are usually managed solely on throughput - how many articles are created; sometimes they are managed on activity - how many articles are read; very, very rarely they are managed on customer task completion. Which begs the question - why do we measure business and not task completion? - no one goes to a site to read text: they go with completing a specific task in mind: surely measuring how many people manage to complete that task is more important than creating yet more content?

And this does not even begin to measure the effect of diluting both on and off site search results with reams of links to content that do not allow the user to complete their task...

4 months ago

Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke, Managing Director at User VisionSmall Business Multi-user

Thanks James for reinforcing that point of resistance to removing content, whether for personal or management ego...or a CMS that doesn't allow it! You're very right - its often difficult getting the KPI to be around the customer experience / success on the site rather than some vague metric on volume of content or theory related to SEO & unique visits. But at least you're better armed for an intelligent discussion on the point after getting solid data on the top tasks.
By the way Gerry is delivering some training in top tasks
- London April 19 and
- Edinburgh April 20

4 months ago

James Robertson

James Robertson, Digital Content Manager at Solicitors Regulation Authority

The thing is... - it is not me who needs Gerry's training, if you see what I mean!

He's an excellent presenter and trainer, with a tried and tested methodology I've implemented many times.

4 months ago

Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke, Managing Director at User VisionSmall Business Multi-user

Of course - but feel free to let anyone else know who may benefit. Glad you've found so it useful.

4 months ago

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