Gerry McGovern on top tasks

Cus­tomer Care­words' CEO on why users’ pri­or­i­ties mat­ter when de­sign­ing sites

net magazine - - FRONT PAGE - Words by Oliver Lind­berg

“Any­body can code and wire­frame but be­ing able to put your­self into other peo­ple’s shoes and re­ally un­der­stand them is the most valu­able skill any dig­i­tal team can have,” ex­claims cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence con­sul­tant Gerry McGovern ( ger­rym­c­gov­, founder and CEO of Cus­tomer Care­words. “And it’s so rare to find: there are so many UX peo­ple who don’t in­ter­act with their cus­tomers – what the hell is your pur­pose? They know all about tools and meth­ods but the per­cent­age of ac­tual time that most dig­i­tal peo­ple spend with cus­tomers – get­ting to know and un­der­stand them – is tiny. No won­der they cre­ate crap prod­ucts that don’t fit!”

It’s for this rea­son that McGovern, who’s been in the busi­ness since 1994, isn’t a fan of per­sonas any­more. “The the­ory is great but the prac­tice has been very poor from what I’ve seen over the years. I used to do work­shops on per­sonas and I went to a lot of ex­pense print­ing out 40 to 60 lovely A4 colour pic­tures of peo­ple. At a cer­tain point I’d ask the at­ten­dees to se­lect a pic­ture of some­body that re­flected the per­sona they’d de­signed. But the beau­ti­ful peo­ple al­ways went first! They al­ways se­lected the pretty ones and never the more nor­mal ones!”

It then struck McGovern that the com­pa­nies that re­ally un­der­stood their cus­tomers didn’t need per­sonas be­cause they were con­stantly in­ter­act­ing with them. “Who cares if some­one is 32 and wears such-and- such shoes? It’s all trivia and most of the time it’s got noth­ing to do with ac­tu­ally mak­ing the web­site bet­ter. I’ve had so many bad ex­pe­ri­ences that of­ten when I hear an or­gan­i­sa­tion has done per­sonas, it’s al­most a sign of im­ma­tu­rity. Sure, some of that stuff is use­ful but the quicker we hu­man­ise things, the bet­ter.”

McGovern has con­sulted with clients such as Mi­crosoft, Drop­box and the BBC as well as gov­ern­ments in the US, UK, EU, the Nether­lands and else­where. Over the course of 15 years he has de­vel­oped and re­fined a re­search method­ol­ogy that helps large or­gan­i­sa­tions im­prove the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence through the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, mea­sur­ing and op­ti­mis­ing of top tasks, the tasks that mat­ter most to their cus­tomers. It’s been used in more than 30 coun­tries and lan­guages and is es­pe­cially suited for com­plex or­gan­i­sa­tions that need to get to the essence of their prod­uct or ser­vice. “It’s about iden­ti­fy­ing what's ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal," McGovern ex­plains, who’s just writ­ten a how-to guide on top tasks, his sev­enth book, and will run a work­shop on his method at UX Brighton on 1 Novem­ber. “What’s the essence of buy­ing a car or choos­ing a uni­ver­sity? It’s re­ally about cut­ting to the ab­so­lute chase of a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem but also about iden­ti­fy­ing what’s not the essence, what I call the tiny tasks. Of­ten the dig­i­tal team spends most of its time on these be­cause they re­flect the ego of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, the de­sire to have puff pieces and all sorts of pro­pa­ganda that of­ten dis­rupt the jour­ney of the top tasks.”

The method­ol­ogy came about al­most by ac­ci­dent. McGovern was run­ning work­shops on in­for­ma­tion ar­chi­tec­ture de­sign that in­cluded a card-sort­ing ex­er­cise. He no­ticed, how­ever, that peo­ple didn’t re­ally want to sort the 150 cards into groups; they wanted to de­cide which were the most im­por­tant straight away. So one time McGovern didn’t bring in the cards and no­ticed he got the same re­sults a lot faster by just ask­ing peo­ple to look at a sheet and quickly choose from 50 to 100 pos­si­ble tasks that cus­tomers may want to com­plete. “When peo­ple look at the sur­vey, they think this can’t work,” McGovern laughs. “Ini­tially, I never showed it to a com­pany. They’d go crazy but there’s a method to the mad­ness. You’re forc­ing peo­ple to re­ally choose what’s es­sen­tial to them. For most peo­ple, a gut in­stinct type of be­hav­iour kicks in and, ev­ery time we do it, we get a small set of stuff that re­ally jumps out from the vot­ing.”

McGovern rec­om­mends or­gan­i­sa­tions delete up to 90 per cent of their con­tent. When he started work­ing with the US De­part­ment of Health, they had 200,000 web pages. They deleted 150,000 of them and no­body no­ticed. Nor­we­gian telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany Te­lenor deleted 80 to 90 per cent of their con­tent and their sales and cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion went up sig­nif­i­cantly, while sup­port calls went down 25 per cent. “Most of what we pro­duce is re­ally low-level stuff, which over time be­gins to clut­ter the ar­ter­ies of the top tasks’ jour­neys,” McGovern sighs.

Fun­da­men­tally McGovern be­lieves that this is down to the way we track suc­cess. “The way we man­age and mea­sure in mod­ern or­gan­i­sa­tions is cre­at­ing far more prob­lems than it is solv­ing,” he says. “In a dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment, there is end­less space and ca­pac­ity to pro­duce, so the met­rics are of pro­duc­tion. At Google, peo­ple get pro­moted for launch­ing a new fea­ture. That’s how you mea­sure you’re smart: you’ve cre­ated some­thing. You don’t get pro­moted be­cause you im­proved some­thing some­body else cre­ated.” In­stead he be­lieves that our fo­cus should be on how some­thing is be­ing con­sumed – and whether it is be­ing con­sumed at all. And if it isn’t, prun­ing

things back is es­sen­tial to pre­vent dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ments be­com­ing turgid and over­grown. “When they’re fresh, they’re re­ally use­ful but leave them a few years…” he says. “I used to love Sur­vey Mon­key. But it’s be­come harder to use, not eas­ier.”

When McGovern con­sulted at Cisco, they iden­ti­fied a top task as ‘down­loaded soft­ware’. At the be­gin­ning of the project, it took 15 steps and 300 sec­onds to down­load a typ­i­cal piece of firmware – three years later it was down to four steps and 40 sec­onds. The shift oc­curred when they stopped mea­sur­ing the soft­ware team sim­ply based on pro­duc­ing firmware that worked. Of course, it was still es­sen­tial that the firmware was well-tested, but they also mea­sured the team on the abil­ity of a net­work en­gi­neer to find and down­load the lat­est ver­sion of the firmware. “Once you start mea­sur­ing the out­come, peo­ple will want to im­prove things,” McGovern sug­gests. “We need far more en­ergy fo­cused on con­tin­u­ously im­prov­ing the crit­i­cal tasks. If we also mea­sure the con­sump­tion, we’ll trans­form the cul­ture.”

Closely linked to the top tasks iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is the cus­tomer ar­chi­tec­ture and the de­sign of an ef­fec­tive and in­tu­itive nav­i­ga­tion. Yet it usu­ally gets ne­glected. “It amazes me that nav­i­ga­tion is the thing or­gan­i­sa­tions in­vest in least,” McGovern shakes his head. “It’s ac­tu­ally the sin­gle most crit­i­cal fac­tor. If there’s one rea­son a site might fail, it’s be­cause it has con­fus­ing menus and links.”

Over the years McGovern has tested thou­sands of peo­ple and there are cer­tain things that al­ways trip them up in a nav­i­ga­tion: one ex­am­ple he gives is that no­body ever un­der­stands what ‘so­lu­tions’ means. The rea­son a site nav­i­ga­tion of­ten fea­tures weird names is be­cause they aren’t re­ally de­signed to help you find what you’re look­ing for; they sim­ply re­flect the or­gan­i­sa­tional struc­ture. “These terms are de­signed to give pres­tige and power to var­i­ous units,” McGovern points out. “If you’re a link on the top level of the struc­ture, it shows your sig­nif­i­cance within the or­gan­i­sa­tion.”

McGovern re­calls a project he worked on years ago cen­tred around the in­tranet of a very large tech­nol­ogy man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany. “The ser­vice di­vi­sion was grow­ing re­ally fast and a lot of the rev­enue and profit was now go­ing to­wards ser­vices,” he re­calls.

“The per­cent­age of ac­tual time most dig­i­tal peo­ple spend with their cus­tomers – get­ting to know and un­der­stand them – is tiny”

As this had sparked a huge amount of jeal­ousy be­tween the prod­uct and the ser­vice di­vi­sions, they had de­manded separate sec­tions in the nav­i­ga­tion. “When we started test­ing and iden­ti­fied the top tasks, how­ever, we found that there was a to­tal con­fu­sion among the staff about what was a prod­uct and what was a ser­vice,” McGovern says. “In the next round of the it­er­a­tion, the sec­tion was called ‘prod­ucts and ser­vices’.”

McGovern has iden­ti­fied seven prin­ci­ples of ef­fec­tive nav­i­ga­tions and a key one is mo­men­tum. You should al­ways help peo­ple main­tain their mo­men­tum in order to get to their des­ti­na­tion as quickly as pos­si­ble, as the es­sen­tial pur­pose of nav­i­ga­tion is to help peo­ple move for­ward. “If some­body clicks on ‘mu­si­cal in­stru­ments’, don’t sec­ondguess them and sug­gest the lat­est films,” McGovern warns. “Help them move on their jour­ney. If you go into ‘mu­si­cal in­stru­ments’ on Ama­zon, they’re not try­ing to sell you books any­more, they’re strip­ping away all the nav­i­ga­tion and the search has be­come cus­tomised to ‘mu­si­cal in­stru­ments’. If you re­ally want to sim­plify and cre­ate the sim­plest and eas­i­est-to-use nav­i­ga­tion, you’ve got to trust peo­ple that they only care about what they’ve cho­sen.”

Un­for­tu­nately, or­gan­i­sa­tions of­ten want to con­trol, not help you on the jour­ney. “If I’m driv­ing to Dublin from Cork, the peo­ple who are de­sign­ing the jour­ney will try to get me to go some­where com­pletely dif­fer­ent. If they were Google Maps, they’d give me direc­tions and all of a sud­den I’ll have ar­rived at McDon­ald’s. But I don’t want to go to McDon­ald’s, I’m not hun­gry! Oh, but we have a spe­cial deal on Big Macs. That’s the way a lot of com­pa­nies think. They force you if at all pos­si­ble be­cause that’s a con­ver­sion. You wanted to go to Dublin but some­how we forced you to go to Belfast, where we have a re­ally good ho­tel deal. That’s not go­ing to work in this age – peo­ple are much more scep­ti­cal and in con­trol. They know what they want. They don’t want to book a flight to Lon­don and end up buy­ing golf clubs!”

McGovern points out that the com­pa­nies that are suc­cess­ful to­day, like Ama­zon, Ap­ple and Face­book, are truly ob­sessed with their cus­tomers and con­stantly ob­serv­ing their be­hav­iour. By way of an ex­am­ple he points to a fea­ture Google Maps tested last year. It showed users how many calo­ries they could burn if they walked to their des­ti­na­tion and to put it into per­spec­tive it con­verted them into an equiv­a­lent num­ber of mini cup­cakes. “Google has a mas­sive feed­back en­gine, though, so within min­utes peo­ple were com­plain­ing the fea­ture was ‘fat sham­ing’ them and that they couldn’t turn it off. It got a ton of neg­a­tive feed­back, which took an hour to doc­u­ment and within three hours it was re­moved. Most or­gan­i­sa­tions would leave it up for six months!”

Top Tasks – How to Iden­tify, Mea­sure and Im­prove Cus­tomer Top Tasks is out now.

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