Top Tasks and the Paradox of Choice


We all say we build our websites to help our users—patients and prospects, visitors, staff, communities and more—but do we really?

Top Tasks Help Users

What if focusing on top tasks, clear navigation and streamlined content actually increased our key measures and made our site visitors happy? Your next question might just be: Where do I sign up?

But then you wonder… How could it possibly be that when we first help our website users do what they came to do, they’ll show their love by sticking with us, following through with activities that also benefit our organization?

It seems counterintuitive, but it works. Requirements to fill out forms with lots of fields or pages—or “shouting” at visitors to do something we want before we let them complete their goal—only creates frustration. Such tactics actually interfere with building the positive relationships that create happy users who are inclined to make return visits.

Responsive Design Also Affects Content

The move to responsive website design increases the need to take a hard look at how content and design work together and how to improve site results by first identifying our users’ top tasks. We need to recognize that the changing content priorities of different devices may also change the meaning and value of content to users. Our focus needs to be on the outcomes site visitors actually achieve—by creating the navigation and content to support them—not on the volume of content/pages or the particular mix of technology and media channels we use. As with all things Web, less is actually more.

Too Many Choices? I Give Up or Go Elsewhere

Information overload? Analysis paralysis? Too much information—especially, information that’s not well organized—gives users a good reason to simply abandon a website. It’s also a point of agreement for experts as diverse as Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., psychologist and professor at Swarthmore College, and Gerry McGovern, international Web content expert and author of Killer Web Content. In his book The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz argues that more choice for the (typically) Western consumer has led to higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of happiness. Yes, we have lots of options at our fingertips, but too many choices—especially those that aren’t presented clearly and concisely—can lead us to just give up and walk away without choosing anything at all.

McGovern’s efforts focus on the Web, where he’s been active since the mid-1990s in developing concepts about effective content and the need to identify users’ top tasks. His analytics also highlight the attention-deficit nature of Web interactions—if we can’t find what we need or almost instantly complete our key task, we promptly take our attention elsewhere and don’t look back.

Helping Ourselves by Helping Our Users

The combination of Web-based ADD and the anxiety of dealing with gigantic amounts of information is enough to drive any Web development team bonkers. We know the need for speed, and we recognize the value of information. Since every website needs both, how do we find the best balance?

Responding effectively may not be as tough as it sounds, even if it might mean we need to seriously re-think our approach and expect a good deal of work to make it happen. That work can start with identifying our users’ top tasks and figuring out how to mesh them with our organizational and business goals. The two actually work hand in hand; if they don’t, you’ve got bigger problems. Devoting the time to get the pre-launch discovery, research and planning right is what makes such a project succeed.

Learning from the Norwegian Cancer Society

The recent website redesign for the Norwegian Cancer Society (NCS) offers an excellent example of the value of extensive pre-launch work. NCS, a nonprofit organization, funds cancer research, provides information to the public about cancer care and prevention, advocates on behalf of those with cancer and their loved ones and fights against cancer on the global stage. The group’s operating budget relies heavily on donated funds. Their cross-disciplinary website development team used McGovern’s concept of “top tasks” to benefit both the organization and its users and prospects.

Between 2010 and 2012, NCS began looking at the effectiveness of their website in generating donations and providing useful information to their audiences. They weren’t happy with what they found, including:

  • Overlapping and duplicate content with no links
  • Content that didn’t address users’ key questions
  • Content creation groups working in decentralized silos; many people were able to edit, but this gave all content equal weight, which was confusing to users
  • Difficult navigation that wasn’t prioritized
  • A focus on what was important to NCS, not what was important to users or prospects
  • Conversions weren’t working, despite nearly one-third of the home page being devoted to requests for donations
Norwegian Cancer Society home page before 2013 redesign

Norwegian Cancer Society home page before 2013 redesign.

Developing a New NCS Site

The obvious need for a new website involved a multi-step process that began with finding goals, key performance indicators (KPIs) and target audiences, identifying top user tasks, and developing a concept and tone of voice. Then, NCS brought these goals together with the user tasks and the concept/tone before moving into design and content development. Ultimately, everything fed into the long-term governance plan for the site.

That 50,000-foot view of the project conceals a few “…and then a miracle happens” moments. The first is finding those goals, KPIs and target audiences. Identifying these items offers the opportunity to put your key stakeholders into brainstorming mode to figure out what you can do online in support of the goals you choose. It’s a critical part of that pre-launch discovery and research phase. For NCS, the general goals were:

  • Reducing the number of people who get cancer
  • Increasing cancer survival rates
  • Ensuring quality of life for cancer patients and their family and close friends

Of course, as an organization, they wanted to increase donations and memberships, too.

Then, they identified four supporting online activities and KPIs for each specific goal:

  1. Helping patients and their friends and family
  2. Increasing knowledge about cancer and prevention (example KPI=more press coverage)
  3. Increasing online self service
  4. Improving our reputation and position (example KPI=more donations)

Identifying Top Tasks

Too often, items that land on our website pages are responses to the “whoever screams loudest wins” approach to content development—exactly the situation at NCS. The only way to counter such noise is with research that might include everything from focus groups, individual surveys and Google Analytics to stakeholder interviews and a top-task survey and analysis.

Consider the top-task survey. Let’s say you can think of 100 things that can be accomplished on your website, including both what you want and what you think your visitors want. You then ask a selected group of actual site users to review the list and respond to a question such as: If you’re visiting The Cancer Society’s website, which five tasks are the most important to you?

You’ll probably find, as NCS did, that the top 25 percent of tasks get more votes than all the remaining tasks combined. Right there, you’ve simplified your website development process by recognizing what you don’t need to include. That means you can concentrate on things that truly are important to your users by making them as friction-free as possible.

You avoid the paradox of choice because you focus your attention—and your users’ actions—on the relatively small number of tasks that give you both what you want as easily and quickly as possible. As a win-win strategy, it’s the best.

Connecting User Goals and Business Goals

The Cancer Society knew it had too many content developers and they weren’t working collaboratively, so they took steps to create smaller, cross-disciplinary teams. These teams worked together to pair user tasks and business objectives. They found that users were looking for content that supported two of the NCS business goals, but none of the user tasks supported the remaining two business goals. Rather than seeing this information as a problem, the NCS teams considered it as an opportunity.

NCS realized that many users came to its site from search engines, social media and links—and that these visitors would probably never see the home page. The a-ha? Give users the answers they need wherever they land and work out the rest of the flow and content from there. The solution? The team created the concept of a “core” page that achieved both goals.

The core page answers user questions and delivers valuable links; it also shows a “way forward” by offering the organizational goal in a logical and engaging way. To overcome the fact that “donate” didn’t appear as a top user task although it’s a major business goal, the team made their donation form portable throughout the site. It now appears in a context where users already are—on a page about advanced cancer research, for example—instead of being plastered in places that interfere with activities users initially came to complete.

Improving Content Governance

A site with 5,000 pages before the 2013 launch has been streamlined to 1,000—and it’s remained at 1,000 pages after launch because NCS took a new approach to content governance. They reduced the number of people touching content from 45 to six, while realizing they can always bring in departmental or subject experts to provide input when needed. A core group of content editors was identified, and they meet weekly. This cultural change also addressed how NCS treats content—shifting the mindset from content as “commodity” to content as “value creator.” And the NCS team developed a set of questions that must be answered before a new page is added to its site.

Norwegian Cancer Society home page after 2013 redesign.

Norwegian Cancer Society home page after 2013 redesign.

Delivering Results

So, after all their hard work, what benefits did the Cancer Society see? Perhaps the most important was an understanding that letting users complete their key task first allows NCS to better guide the next actions users take. From a user perspective, think of it like this: Let me find the information about cancer care or prevention that I came looking for and, because it was helpful and interesting, I’m more likely to consider doing something you suggest or Tweeting about, liking, pinning, sharing, joining or making a donation to your organization.

Other beneficial results that matched NCS goals included:

  • A 20 percent increase in people contacting NCS nurses to ask questions by phone, email and live chat
  • People who make contact are more informed when they ask questions
  • More press coverage—with press sites and reporters simply cutting and pasting the improved NCS content into their stories
  • A 70 percent increase in one-time donations, even though the home page donation banner has been removed in favor of a simple text link in a right-column menu
  • An 88 percent increase in monthly/recurring donations
  • A higher median level of giving that resulted from raising the default “suggested donation” level setting from $40US (250 kroner) to $80US (500 kroner)

In addition, NCS memberships—now several clicks deeper into the site—have increased 164 percent.

Your mileage may vary, but it’s hard to argue with such positive results. Makes you want to take another look at how your website content and design truly serve your users, right? Right!

Helping You Succeed

Although there’s a bit more to the process than what’s described in this overview, the key to success is to think in new ways about how your website can deliver value to your users. Because, when you do, they’ll love you—and reward you—for it. So why wait? Talk with the content, strategy and marketing experts at Geonetric about taking the next steps. Let’s work together to help your users so they can help you. That’s how everyone wins.

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This entry was posted in Content, Design, Marketing by Jill Jensen. Bookmark the permalink.
Jill Jensen

About Jill Jensen

As Geonetric’s content director, Jill’s strategic organization skills and her extensive writing/editing background help clients streamline their websites and tell their stories through clear and memorable copy. With 35+ years of experience, this digital/content strategist and wordsmith has done it all—information architecture, content strategy, creative writing, technical writing, copywriting and ghostwriting—for a wide range of clients. At Geonetric, she has worked on projects for clients such as HCA Capital Division, Avera Health, Adventist HealthCare and University of Colorado Health. She holds a bachelor’s degree in telecommunicative arts and journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University.

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