Gerry McGovern on top tasks
Customer Carewords' CEO on why users’ priorities matter when designing sites
“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 ( gerrymcgovern.com), 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.