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Focusing on Top Tasks

What is a Top Task?

A top task is any action that:

  • A large number of people need to complete online
  • Is essential for people to accomplish quickly and easily

Why Is It Important?

  • People come to your website with a specific task in mind. If your website doesn’t help them complete that task, they’ll leave.
  • Identify the mission—the purpose—of your website, to help you clarify the #1 top task your website should help people accomplish.
  • Don't yet have a mission statement for your website? Now is a great time to write one!
  • Sample Statement of Purpose:

    HUD’s website teaches current and potential homeowners how to buy and protect their home, helps lower-income families find rental assistance, connects business partners with HUD resources, and gives people strategies to improve their communities.

For more help, read Organize Content Based on Audience Needs.

Where Can You Find Your Customers’ Top Tasks?

1. Listen to Customer Questions

What questions do your visitors ask when they send you an email or call your office?

  • Where can I find information about …?
  • Do I qualify for…?
  • How do I…?

A top task might be to research a health issue, apply for a government program, search for a phone number, or comment on a proposed regulation.

  • Where can I find information about cancer treatment options?
  • Do I qualify for a HUD rental assistance program?
  • How do I contact your office in Orlando?

Read Knowing Your Audience & Doing Market Research

2. Review Your Data

Analyze your web metrics to figure out what people are looking for on your website.

  • What are your most-visited pages?
  • On which pages do people spend the most time?
  • What top search phrases do people use when coming from search engines?
  • What are the top search phrases within your search engine?

For more helping with learning how to review your website’s data, read Analyzing Web Logs & Visitor Traffic.

3. Talk to Customers

Get out of the office and TALK to people. Different audience groups often have different top tasks, so if your website serves several audience groups, talk to each group to determine what is most important to them.

  • Accompany program staff to business partner meetings, and talk to partners about their critical tasks. Why do they use your website? What’s easy to use, what’s difficult, are there things they’d like to, but can’t now, do online?
  • If you’re running a survey on your website, ask visitors what task they were trying to accomplish, and whether or not they were successful. For example:
    • Question 1: What is your primary task in coming to the site today?
    • Question 2: How easy or difficult was it to complete that task? (scale of 1 – 5)
  • If your agency sponsors an information booth at a public event, spend a few hours there. Take a laptop or print out a few important pages from your site. Ask people why they might use the site.
  • Add a question about top tasks on all training evaluations.
  • Use your imagination! Take every opportunity to get out of the office and talk to people about your website.

How Can You Help Visitors Complete Their Top Tasks?

Once you’ve identified a top task, don't just focus on one piece of information, or one web page, at a time. Instead, think about how that piece of information fits into the task people are trying to complete.

Does each piece of information help people to get from point A to point B? After reading a page, can the reader figure out what to do next? Does a piece of information make the task easier, or is it just clutter? If the visitor stumbles into the “middle” of a task, can they find their way back to the beginning? Think about the entire process of completing this task start to finish.

  • Take off your web manager hat and look at the question from a visitor standpoint. Pretend you don't know anything about your organization, or the rules or processes associated with the task—then document each step your visitor will need to go through to get from start to finish.
  • Sometimes it helps to talk it out. If someone called you on the phone and asked that same question, what would you tell them? How would you explain the process?
  • Help your visitors find the right place to start their task:
    • Optimize the task “start” page for search engines
    • Make the task easy to find on your website

Once your visitor has found the starting point, help them navigate through each step to a successful finish.

  • If you make improvements to a task, test it to make sure the changes actually make the task easier.

How Should You Measure Top Tasks?

  • Once you re-orient your site to be task-driven, your metrics need to be task-driven too.
  • Relying on metrics such as hits or visits won’t tell you if your customers are successfully completing their tasks.
  • One way to measure success is to conduct informal usability testing. Nothing is more eye-opening than asking someone to find something on your website, and watching them skip right over it without even seeing it. It’s obvious to you, since you look at it every day… but can other people find it? If not, why not?
  • Develop meaningful performance indicators. For example: “We will reduce the average time it takes to complete our top five tasks by 10% each year.”

Read Ways to Evaluate Your Site.

How to Implement

Roadmap to a Task-Focused Website
(PDF, 64 KB, 3 pgs, 10/2007 requires Adobe Acrobat Reader )


Review the Web Manager University webinar by Gerry McGovern entitled: Knowing Your Audience and Their Top Tasks


Page Updated or Reviewed: February 28, 2008

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