Saturday, June 27, 2009

Oh Top Tasks, Where Art Thou?

For the past 5 years, the Federal Web Managers Council has had one priority: improve the efficiency and effectiveness of citizens’ top tasks and make it easy for citizens to find them. Why are “top tasks” so important? Typically, the public comes to a website to do something…I want to get a passport…I want to buy a home…I want to sign up for food stamps. They want to accomplish those tasks quickly - get in, get it done, get out, and move on to something else in their busy lives. If you want to satisfy your customers, you put those frequently-used tasks (think of them as the most popular tasks) where citizens can find them easily…you put them on the screen where the web user’s eye goes first.

So I got to wondering…how easy is it to find those popular tasks?

Nicole Burton – GSA’s Usability Specialist – uses this chart when she teaches courses on website usability. It’s based on user experience, showing how people scan a web screen. The red areas are the places their eyes go first; yellow areas second; and green areas third. If you want your web audience to pay attention to something, then, you should put it in the red area.

I went through several of the Cabinet-level agency websites, doing two things:
  • Before I visited the site, I picked one or two “tasks” I thought a large number of citizens might want to complete and then I tried to find a path to those tasks on the home page; and
  • Once I got to the site, I tried to identify that agency’s top tasks by the wording and placement on the home page.

My experience was mixed. I’ll give you a just a couple of examples.

On the EPA site, my pre-determined tasks were:

  1. I want to know what environmental problems are in my neighborhood
  2. I want to do something to protect the environment

Good news. I did find a path to the answers for both. In a section called “My Environment,” I can type my zip code and get maps and other information about the environment in my area. I can “Pick 5 for the environment” or click on “Protect the Environment” and get clear and specific ideas for things I can do to help the environment. So EPA gets an A for letting me achieve my top tasks. But placement should be better. “Pick 5…” and “Protect the Environment” are in the red quadrant – but just barely. “My Environment” is in the lower left corner of the screen – in the green area (and my screen is set at 1680 X 1050, so I see more content in a screen than others may see).

A large rotating billboard graphic at the top of the screen takes up a lot of space. Might be better to shrink (or get rid of) that (annoying) feature and move the top tasks up. Still, I think EPA does a pretty good job.

On the Department of Interior site, I looked for a list or a map showing the national parks. Surely that would be a top task. I thought I’d hit a “bingo” right off the bat. First thing I see in the navigation column on the left is: How Do I…” and the first item is “Get a National Parks Pass.” OK – it’s not exactly a listing of parks, but I figured this could be a path to that list. Wrong. I came to a very wordy and long press release.

I looked through the rest of the topics in the left…webcams, For Teachers, For DOI Employees…I don’t see anything there for me. In fact, I don’t see anything in the first screen about national parks. So I started scrolling down. In the lower right of the second screen (and this home page is way too long - over 4 screens), I found a link to the National Park Service website. When I clicked on it, it went to an (annoying) pop-up that, indeed, did have a link to a map of parks. So I was eventually able to complete my task – but it took a lot of work. Further, I really wasn’t sure what Interior’s top tasks are, based on my review of the home page.

Oh top tasks, where art thou?

I’ve come to 3 conclusions.

  • Top tasks probably are there – somewhere - on most agency level sites…but they can be very hard to find. Often they’re mixed in with more esoteric items or links. Often they are articulated using terms that the general public wouldn’t recognize or use. So the best practice here is to separate the top tasks from other links and to use terms that the public uses to describe the task. Action words (e.g., apply for passports, learn how to buy a home) really help.
  • There’s no consistency across government about where to place top tasks on the home page. Something as simple as agreement across government to put the top tasks on the left side of the home page, in that top “red” quadrant could make it easier for the public to find and use top tasks across government.
  • There’s no consistency across government about how to label top tasks. Again, something as simple as agreement across government to put the links to top tasks under a header, “Do you want to…” or “Most Requested” or “Most Popular” could make the public’s experience so much better.

One thing more…and it’s important. How you organize your website says a lot about your priorities. Many of the cabinet agency sites I reviewed use much of the “red zone” space on narrative, topics, or links that promote the agency or the administration, when most of the public comes to government websites looking for narrative, topics, or links that get them to the tasks they want to complete. Frankly, it’s annoying to have to wade through that organization-centric content when I just want to do what I want to do. I'll think better of you if you put my needs first.

Oh top tasks, where art thou?

Related Links

Top Task Management For Websites (Gerry McGovern)


Jeffrey Levy said...

I'm glad you found what you were looking for at EPA. We did put a lot of effort into making it easy to find things you can do to protect the environment. We also did our best to satisfy many other top tasks.

Yet we get complaints from people looking for regulatory info. I guess those folks don't notice the tab at the top labeled "Laws and Regulations."

Many people also look for jobs.

The upshot is you can't fit everything in the upper left corner.

You and I have disagreed, and will continue to debate, about the idea that the home page is solely about top tasks. I think it's also (also, not solely) about educating the public about what we do, making them aware of major new developments, etc. People do come to our home page looking for things they've heard about it in the news.

And there are times when we really want to grab their attention, like the digital TV transition, regardless of what they came to us to do.

But hey, at least it's one graphic box on our home page, vs. the older design that was 75% news release headlines.

It's hard to accomplish everything in such a small space!

Candi Harrison said...

For the record...I don't think home pages should be limited to top tasks (I'm not that naive)...but I do think they should be featured ;-)