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Gerry McGovern ‘Top Tasks; A method for understanding peoples product and service requirements’

John Carter
December 18, 2018
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December 18, 2018

Gerry McGovern ‘Top Tasks; A method for understanding peoples product and service requirements’

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GS: Gerry McGovern, a very warm welcome back to this as HCD.

Gerry Mc: Thank you very much, Gerry. Lovely to be back.

GS: So, you know, like this is your second time on the podcast. Last time we spoke was in my first week back in Ireland and uh, I’ve just hit six months back in Ireland. So it seems like a fitting.

Gerry Mc: No, it’s just getting over the first conversation.

Gerry Scullion: 02:16 Well, we’ve got a lot to chat about and since we spoke last, I know we mentioned top tasks in that first conversation and we call it a recently, a couple of months ago for lunch and you were telling me about you’re creating it into a book and that book has now finished and is it, it’s about to be released, which is just fantastic for anyone who’s just joining the podcast, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you describe yourself and what you do.

Gerry McGovern: 02:44 Basically, I’ve been involved in, in the web or the Internet since about 1994 and I started off as a freelance journalist. That’s how I discovered it. And then started trying to set up and dotcoms and at a company called Nua that was quite successful for a period at least in Ireland and in the late nineties. Uh, but as he got involved in that, the whole web thing less from a technical or even classical design point of view and more interested in the customer experience or user experience. So that’s a kind of an area of really focused on over the period published, this is now my by seven books, so to speak broadly, either around content and the importance of content to customers or the general customer experience and how to deliver a better customer, user employee experience.

Gerry Scullion: 03:40 And absolutely, I know from just reading, I’ve got the book here in front of me and I read a lot of the book so far, but it’s, it was created 15 years ago.

Gerry McGovern: 03:50 That’s it. Yeah. And, and there’s a no, you just come back from Australia and there’s a kind of a, there’s a story of the touches a little bit about, uh, on Australia and also on maybe innovation and, and uh, how you actually create things because what this top task this method. It’s essentially a research method to identify what’s critical to people and what’s not critical. And it was like many things discovered by accident. I didn’t invent it, in fact, I tried to stop it being happening or discovering it, and the way that essentially happened is I used to do a lot of workshops around the information architecture design and I was in Australia number of times. Part of the discovery actually happened in Australia, I was doing all these workshops and in Adelaide and Perth and Sydney and Melbourne and then going to New Zealand, Wellington and and places like that. I noticed doing these intense one day information architecture workshops and part of the information architecture was a card sorting exercise and I’ve basically gone through a big process of coming up with this imaginary website, so to speak, for a national destination. And Ireland was the example. The core thing was, you know, how would you organize all this content and structure if you, if you had set up a national tourism website.

Gerry McGovern: 05:15 So I created all these cards connected with tourism, getting here and around things to do and see special offers, accommodation, you know, everything I could find connected with structures and links and navigation for tourism environment. And I had about 150 cards. Very proud of this as I used to walk around with a little plastic tool bucks that was full of 15 sets of cards, but a 150 cars in each word of my God.

Gerry Scullion: 05:44 You were like Bob the Builder!

Gerry McGovern: 05:44 I was! I was Bob the Builder. I was Bob the information architect and uh, the amount of effort I bought those A4 pages with the eight blocks and serrated edges and I printed that was a big exercise to print out all these things. So I’ve gone through this massive thing and I was very invested in this whole card sorting mechanism. So what I do is break my workshops up into 15 groups of people and give them each a set of these cards and say now go off and sort and start organizing the results sorts of things around.

Gerry McGovern: 06:16 But the final outcome was I wanted to find the outcomes. It was that, we were going to get the classification or the navigation for the homepage. So what should be on the homepage? What’s the critical stuff? Because if people come that they’re going to need to see if they’re coming to an Australian destination or an Irish destination country website. So that was working around there, was working okay. And they were broadly sorting. We’re, we’re seeing similar patterns coming up, whether we did it in Adelaide or whatever. I know before I’d done it in Reykjavik, I was travelling the world at this stage doing these workshops, but to refine it at one stage I said, well, that’s when I want you to select 10 tasks to go onto the homepage. And then I decided, well, it’d be good if we could get an even greater clarity to see is, you know, is there something that’s much more important than everything else?

Gerry McGovern: 07:08 So I asked them to vote on their top 10 tasks, but to do that, I created this sheet at the back of the workbook which listed the 150 tasks in A-Z. And I said, okay, after all the sorting, I want you to go to this sheet and basically scored the task 10, nine, eight, seven, six. So as that. And then I landed all the scores together, blah, blah blah, and we’d, we’d see our there dominant tasks and of course there were. But what happened was that people started cheating because I’d do this exercise just before launching. I’d say whenever you’ve done the sorting, you can go out and have your lunch and if you get the sorting down earlier, you can have a longer lunch. And I noticed people would go, some people instead of sorting out and unpacking and taking those elastic bands, which I’ve found very solid elastic bands because when you try and tie together 150 cows, you need to have good elastic bands or otherwise you’re going to spend very traumatic periods in your bedroom at night preparing for the next morning’s information architecture sessions with loads of cards mixing together.

Gerry McGovern: 08:12 So. But they weren’t doing it. There weren’t sorting with the carriers and they were going immediately to the back of the worksheet and they were actually scoring. They were putting in scores straight away. So I soon as I notice that I got down to him and say, what are you doing there? And start giving out to them and saying, no, but the whole purpose of this is to sort the character. This is just this spreadsheet in the back, this is just the end, the last five or 10 minutes at processes. It really will not get you a good result. You know, you sort my bloody cards because of the amount of effort I put into money by cards and because I’ve learned about card sorting and the people think I’m good at this and blah blah blah. But anyway, more and more people started cheating and then I had a crisis of identity.

Gerry McGovern: 08:58 What am I anymore? I’m, I’m not a card sorting trainer. I do a new, I’m not good at information architecture, but one morning I decided I’d do something brave and really risky and I left my Bob the information architects building a case in the hotel room and I just brought down the sheets of paper and I gave everybody a sheet of paper and Excel built in Excel with three columns and there was basically 50 things in each column and it says, okay, let’s say you’re, you’re building this tourism website, I want you to look at this sheet and select what you think should go on the homepage and give 10 to the most important one, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. So we went through that process. Of course it was, it was about five, six, seven, eight times shorter than the whole sorting process.

Gerry McGovern: 09:48 And then I said, okay, go off now here’s another x as an article of the data from the manually and put it into a spreadsheet and I calculated all the stuff and then I looked at my previous workshops and I saw, wow, it’s identical. It’s practically identical from the other exercise, which was the manual card sorting and that was, that was the beginning of it and then then I taught the magic was in the sheet and it gives the sheets out and then somebody says, why are you giving these stupid cheats out? Why can’t you do it in the survey? And I says, no, it’s this sheets. You gotta look at the sheet, you know, it’s, it’s the organizer is to three columns. The magic is in the three columns and stuff like that and then somebody says that’s stupid and they created their own survey and the survey won’t work.

Gerry McGovern: 10:35 You can’t have people scanning up and down. Hundred and 50 things. They’re not going to choose logically in a survey, but of course the survey did work and there through refinements and basically, you know, I think a lot of the essence of discovery is really watching you know, and this whole philosophy that I have now that apparently I learned there is design through use gets your idea going, but then get people using it and have a particular eye on the people who are so to speak. Doing it wrong or cheating because in the cheating or doing it wrong could be the magic that will actually transform. Because people will always try and find a simpler way. People will always try and find a better way because they wanted to get to lunch. You know, are they don’t want to go through these big exercise and sometimes they won’t be doing the right thing.

Gerry McGovern: 11:30 But sometimes there’ll be discovering something that’s simpler and better and it used to be 10 things that we’d ask people then we discovered true analysis that 10 was too many. A lot of people would begin to struggle at about six or seven, you know, they, they couldn’t get up to 10, some people would want 20, but on average a lot of people would struggle. Then we settled on five. We did. We stuck with that for years. But then we began to discover through observation and feedback as well, maybe about 10, 20 percent of people didn’t have five in the process. Then we did an analysis, we did an AB testing and we give one group where we said you must choose five, and then another group would really said you can choose up to five. And we found there were essentially statistically identical. So now we say up to five rather than five.

Gerry McGovern: 12:20 Then we used to get people to vote five, four, three, two, one. And then we discovered a through analysis that actually you get the exact same results. Certainly if you have more than 100 voters of you’re very low voters, you only have 20 or 30, the variances will be significant, but if you’ve got over a hundred voters, you essentially get the identical league table if you just get people to choose five rather than if you asked them to choose five and then rank five, four, three, two, one. So we says, oh, why I asked them to rank five, four, three, two, one. If we’re essentially getting the same results if we just asked them to choose five. So we’ve been trying to simplify it over the years, so. So that’s maybe a much longer description than you had expected me to give you of how the method has developed.

Gerry Scullion: 13:10 So I remember when I was chatting to you before you mentioned about doing work within, I think it was the EU. Talk to me about other examples where you’ve seen top tasks work. That’s the first part of the question. Then the second part of the question would be what are the risks associated with just using top tasks alone?

Gerry McGovern: 13:29 about two times five, 2006. When it began to get moving, it’s been implemented about 400 times all over the world when maybe not so much in Asia or South America, just tiny bit in Brazil, but uh, mainly in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and entities that have used it a lot or organizations. They’re a Toyota did a big project on their last year in 14 countries in Europe and they’ve said that it is as basically transformed how they think about organizing and digital for people buying a car that it gave them the data to number one show. There’s a common way people buy cars, whether they’re Germans or French, you know, so it established that actually there was a very similar mindset, uh, with customers whether they were a Norway or Belgium or Holland or the UK or Germany. So that was an important thing to discover. And then the next phase and top tasks, the first phase is task identification.

Gerry McGovern: 14:29 Uh, then there are two other phases. One is developing an architecture with the top tasks so that they did that and there they are building that architecture around specs, specifications and features. So we did a big project to simplify how they are organized specifications and features, and then the final thing is what’s called a task performance indicator of where we observed people trying to complete their top tasks and through those three processes they discovered there was a core set of problems in how they were organizing their digital content and they’re there now re-engineered going through a massive process of, uh, kind of content re-engineering to simplify how because they were getting a lot of negative feedback over the years that essentially people could not find really important stuff on their websites in relation to buying a car. So Toyota, it is a very big exercise book.

Gerry McGovern: 15:23 We’ve done a lot in technology at the moment. We’re doing a, we’ve done numerous projects for IBM, for Cisco, for Microsoft, for Netapp vm ware, or we’re doing quite a bit in Health, Irish Health out at the moment IKEA, Tetra Pak tends to have been larger organizations over over the years, although many medium and small ones have used top tasks, but they’ve not so much engaged with us because they’ve done it themselves, so to speak. They might’ve gone to the workshops, you know, and then took the methods and implemented that themselves, but you know, in many environments where you’ve got a highly political environment and you’ve gotten a lot of stakeholders and there’s a lot of, you know, maybe not agreement around what really matters to the customers and you’re trying to build this consensus about saying, yeah, here’s what truly matters and here’s what doesn’t matter. It has been quite successful.

Gerry Scullion: 16:22 So we’ve just gone on the second part of the question about that. There’s no doubt there’s huge value in the methods. I know myself and Gerry Gaffney actually we can talk a little bit more about The 3 Gerrys. What, um, you know, we, we’ve used this to great success, but my question to you is, where do you think the problems could lie in just using top tasks alone?

Gerry McGovern: 16:44 Well, like everything, it’s a part of a jigsaw, you know, it’s not an answer in total and some people take it. Well one of the biggest mistakes I’ve found over the years is that they do a top tasks and the added to the website and they say here’s our top tasks and that’s added to the website, so it’s another little piece of navigation. So the, they had a big website and it was crap and nobody could find it. And they said, oh, we do a top tasks to do a tough task and they find the top five or 10 tasks and then they add that as a little classification to the website. So what they’ve done is they’ve made a crap website even crappier, you know, because top task is not an add on. It’s an entire approach. So what it’s saying is the top tasks should dominate, but there should be a home and there should be a place for everything for the tiny tasks if they’re important. It’s just that the tiny tasks it be at level three or level four or level five in the structure in the environment. So if you just use it as an add on, you’re probably going to make things worse. And of course getting top, agreeing, what is your task is a very amorphous, you know, what are the things that are really critical to people in dealing and we’re doing a project at the moment in relation to mental and physical wellbeing. So you know, maybe these things aren’t strictly tasks, but you know, in, in Ireland, right? Housing is something that’s important to mental and physical wellbeing because you can’t get it and when you get it, it’s so bloody expensive as you know yourself. So you know, is housing part of the mental and physical wellbeing environment, you know, is Oh yeah, people would immediately agreed things like happiness or, or mindfulness or or stuff like that. They are important elements, but what is it to requires very serious discussion and you really need to bring together a multidisciplinary team. If you’re just a marketing guys are the communication people or to whatever, you’re really going to have a very slanted ultimate list. And if you, if you have the wrong list of people vote on, then you get a very skewed picture and you say, Oh, we’ve discovered everything.

Gerry McGovern: 18:57 So actually to discover the task environment before anybody votes is a very intensive, difficult exercise that 90 percent of organizations are not willing to invest in because they don’t really want to understand their customers that well, they just wanting to build stuff and produce stuff and get stuff going. And I don’t care if it’s a tiny task, look how quickly we produced it and look at that mountain of crap we produced on that as well, you know, and uh, you know, so that, that’s the way we still measure most organizations their activity, not whether people have been successful in finding out do they have symptoms, but look at old a symptomatic content we have. And I know 60 percent of it is out of date, but feel that weight at the website.

Gerry Scullion: 19:46 Yeah, it’s big. It’s strong. So, uh, another question. So like if people are doing the top tasks methods right? And I’m not trying to break the top task by asking these questions, but if people are asked to rank stuff.

Gerry McGovern: 19:59 Gerry, I know where you live by the way!

Gerry Scullion: 20:02 You probably do, and are sitting outside the house. So if people are being asked to rank these, say 150 cards, they can only rank what’s in front of them. So is there a bit of a blind spot in regards a missing that and that this is where it’s kind of a leading question before about doing it alone will give you those other aspects to add onto those cards there might be missing in the original task.

Gerry McGovern: 20:28 True. And actually 150 is too much. And what. I mean that was a crazy note. Typically now we’re about 50 to 80, but it actually worked at 150, which was unbelievable. I mean it’s almost unimaginable that you can give a survey with one single list and 150 things and they’ll work properly. But the crucial thing I think you’re, you’re looking at there is what I said earlier, defining the task environment. So when we’re defining the task environment, we do not define it based on what you have or what what aids. So when we were working with Toyota for example, we didn’t, we didn’t look at the Toyota website only, we didn’t look at the Ford Motor websites. We went out there. We had those. As you’re indicating these discussions, these brainstorms to say, well, in buying a car, what might be important to you, et cetera.

Gerry McGovern: 21:18 And you know, there was stuff that came up that is not even available today on, on most car websites, but we included in the list because we knew what we knew true discussions or workshops or talks or other sorts of research that. So when you’re defining the environment, like in relation to mental and physical wellbeing, we’re not saying, oh, we’re only going to focus on the stuff that we have on the Irish health website. You know, that’s going to define the task. There’s no way we’re going to go out. We’re going to talk to psychologists and psychiatrists and doctors and nurses and practitioners and patients and, and we’re going to look at what’s out there. Not just in the digital environment, but also in the physical environment, so it’s investing that time in developing the environment that then you go out and you get people to vote and you say, Oh look, task number five, we don’t even deal with it at the moment.

Gerry McGovern: 22:13 It’s the number five most important tasks for, for our customers. So defining that task environment from the broadest possible perspective is an absolutely critical step because the most. It’s a must because if you don’t do it, there are voting on. So one of the things we sometimes do, if we’re worried that we don’t have a good sources from search, etc. Is we do a preliminary survey so we go out to people and we say, why’d you come here today? Or what’s the top three important things, the most important things to you in relation to mental and physical wellbeing. So we do a prelIminary quite recall, a task collection survey and We might get, try and get a couple hundred people to answer that. So we’re getting people to think not in a channel focus. That’s one of the most dangerous things you can do in any sort of design because anyway, most people don’t understand their behaviors within channels.

Gerry McGovern: 23:09 They don’t understand that on the phone I do this, they just don’t understand that I need to renew my insurance or I need to get better, etc. So keep it as broad as possible in defining the task because what they vote on frames obviously what the top tasks are going to be. Yeah, absolutely. I always like him, so to me is a quantitative piece and I always likened quantitative to be like a flashlight in a cave and allows me to drill into the areas that are then apply quality of other forms of research to really get a deeper understanding to really understand what’s in front of my eyes. I don’t know what your thoughts are on that. So we did last year a big overall health project with Irish health trying to rio and it was basically in dealing with held what’s most important to you.

Gerry McGovern: 24:00 And then we discovered that the number two task was mental wellbeing. So 4,000 people voted and they said, wow, that’s really interesting in that really backs up all the thinking that’s happening now, and of course it’s on the radio, et cetera, et cetera. So now we’re doing a deeper dive into mental and physical wellbeing. So we found out it was the number two tasks. Then we got to say, well, it’s going to be. They’re like, well, how do we understand our. How do people understand fiscal management? So often what happens is when you do a macro top tasks, it defines the macro environment and then to various other exit, like I’m in Norway, they did a big, again around health around hospitals and they discovered that the top task was treatment naturally enough, but they discovered it was tree distinct top tasks, preparing for treatment during treatment and poor street.

Gerry McGovern: 24:56 But so the, they found there was this, these three core tasks so that arm them with data that they could go into focus groups. And then I start asking people directed questions like, or when you’re preparing for hospital, what are the things that you worry about or what you know. So instead of going into focus group and say, hey, tell us about it, hospitals are telling the top task, give them pointed questions that they could get deeper exploration as you say, you know, with qualitative methods to really flesh out preparing for hospitals, so to speak in multiple different aspects. Absolutely. So we’re actually coming towards the end of the episode was I just wanted to give a bit of a wrap up on what the book is in case we haven’t been really, really clear how to. It’s everything I could think of that I’ve learned in how to do it, you know, it’s everything, how to put the long list together, et cetera, et cetera, all that stuff.

Gerry McGovern: 25:59 If you read this book, you should have a lot of the information to do it. Of course the theory and the practice, etc. But you, you will have everything that I know that I’ve written down in relation to how you do it. A top task project. It’s a how to book and if they want, if you wanted to get the book, well yeah gerry, you know, you’ll find it. It’ll be available on amazon now in the next couple of weeks. It’s not. It’s available right, which is the overall publishing can be bought for them and I think it’s an ebooks in a number of places, but over the coming weeks it’ll be on. It will trigger it. It’ll trickle into all the major stores, but if you go to gerry, you’ll find that they’re in the book section.

Gerry Scullion: 26:44 Brilliant. So we did the three questions the last time. I’m going to ask them to you again just in case there’s something different you might want to add. So what’s the one professional skill do you wish you were better at? That I wish I was better at.

Gerry McGovern: 26:57 Well, I suppose managing people.

Gerry Scullion: 27:01 I think you said that the last step as well.

Gerry McGovern: 27:04 That must be truthful. So in and so that you know because I’ve been more about ideas and you know, but you find out what you’re good at and you, you try and do more editing and you find out what you’re not good at and you try and do less than that. But certainly that would be one area. And what’s the one thing that you wish were able to banish from the industry? Well, we were talking yesterday about dark patterns, you know, The 3 Gerrys, yourself and Gerry gaffney and myself that you know, we could banish a bitter to ego to or the organizational sense that it feels it has to shove crap down people’s throat. Like the tiny tasks that say about the tiny tasks when they’re tiny task goes to sleep at night or dreams of being a top task.

Gerry McGovern: 27:51 If we could just get rid of at least somewhat a tiny task cause organizations think that, you know, senior management speeches are their press releases, are pictures are there, politicians are, are there, blah blah blah that people actually care and nobody cares about niinety percent of what our organizations do and if they just get over it and stop pumping so much crap into the world and actually just help people do the things that they need to do. Everybody. Everybody would be better off at. Organizations would make more money. Customers would be happy. Stop being so bloody needy and telling people about how important you are and what initiatives you’re doing and just shut up and serve the customer.

Gerry Scullion: 28:42 All right, so we go to the third question, jerry, you cracked me up. Third question is, what advice would you give to a emerging design talent for the future?

Gerry McGovern: 28:53 Design with the customer. Know at the age of you don’t need to guess, of course you can guess open, but get it into follow the minimally viable product road. Follow the deletion and the truly adjunct designed. Get it into use. Get rid of your ego as well. You’re not a genius. You’re not a magician. Don’t listen to that bullshit they’re teaching you in school that you’re, that you’re the creative and that everyone else has to dumbo, you know, in the process and you come in with your, your magic little ones and you’ll create this beautiful thing and stop the Hollywood fixation or the Picasso fixation. Do that in your spare time. You know, in your day to day job, just help people you know, get on with their people. Have lots of stress today. People are worried, you know, there’s a lot of people hardly have enough money at the end of the month. If you could just help them pay their bills quickly without torturing them in the process, you would have made the world a slightly better place. You know, if you are the person who creates a survivor’s guide to a shitty week, you’ve done something well.

Gerry Scullion: 30:06 Gerry Mcgovern. I don’t think we’ve ended an episode quite like that. That was the perfect ending. Thank you so much for your time today.

Gerry McGovern: 30:14 You’re very welcome Gerry.

Gerry Scullion: 30:15 So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you’d like to be part of the conversation or community up on over to this is [inaudible] dot com where you can request to join the slack channel and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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