Timing top tasks can help you sleep better

Posted on September 9, 2009 by ssmith

How long do your users take to perform important tasks on your website?

Could you answer your senior executives if they asked you? Never before in history has it been possible to answer such a question so accurately. Task management owes much to the history of time-keeping. Time-keeping mechanisms have helped us plan, observe, and measure tasks in comparable units of measurement. As time-keeping has improved so has task management. History has something to teach us about convincing people to time user tasks, compare time-on-task.

Early clocks gave us time in standardized lengths and the ability to measure elapsed time uniformly. Seconds added accuracy to the observation and comparisons of task performance. People no longer debate the length of seconds. But why did it take so long to become commonplace? Maybe for the same reason that it takes you so long to convince colleagues of the importance of your users’ time-on-task.

History gives us an important tip – time is especially meaningful when compared to norms. When travel and telegraph connected cities, time became comparable across those locations. Rail schedules were dependent on time being the same in each town. Local time gave way to time zones in 1880. Prior to that, seventy time zones existed in the USA alone. Standards in time-keeping give us the ability to make accurate comparisons. Now we compare a task in uniform lengths across servers in different countries, disciplines, and languages. Norms and standards enable comparisons.

Now let’s apply that to how to communicate with colleagues. Instead of just presenting time-on-task, compare times from usability testing to a typical time for that task, or general norms (see our article two-minute warning [1]). Comparisons make it easier for your management to see your point.

TIP: Motivate web managers to improve the user experience
by comparing time-on-task to norms for that task

Humans invented time-keeping for a reason. When we keep time we can change our behaviour, we can compare tasks, and we can become more efficient. The more humans timed things, the more words we added to describe it. After mechanical clocks appeared in Europe, the term punctual changed to mean on-time, where previously it meant to be obsessed with minutiae. The English word speed appeared. Music added notation for beats per minute. New words emerged to help people manage and improve tasks. Measurements help us prioritize where to improve. “An accurate and scientific study of unit times is by far the most important element in scientific management” (Frederick Taylor, 1911). Scientific measurement of time-and-motion enabled Ford workers to be more productive and thus make affordable cars.

We are in a similar revolution. And early task management consultants like Frederick Taylor had similar problems convincing businessmen to be more scientific. Taylor claimed productivity could be tripled in pig-iron production, but the steel industry was slow to adopt the changes. Then as now, managers require compelling evidence to convince their own stakeholders. That is why we time tasks in usability testing. When web managers see how long it takes people to do common tasks on their website, they can in turn motivate stakeholders to improve task performance.

TIP: Motivate authors to improve web content
by measuring how well users perform

The ability to measure tasks has steadily increased over the millennia. Minutes and seconds emerged only centuries ago. Synchronized task-timing emerged in our century. Tasks are now measured and synchronized over networks – at first over telegraph, then phone lines, now the internet. The pace of change in rigorous study of tasks led humans through the Industrial Age and into the Information Age.

Yet we are still learning how to apply the advances. One reason is because human expectations for how long they take on a task are not easy for web designers to anticipate. It is difficult for designers to imagine users doing tasks – there is no replacement for observation. Ever since Frederick Taylor argued in 1911 that a scientific focus on tasks should replace rule-of-thumb work methods, task-analysis is becoming more and more essential in many design disciplines.

TIP: Train your web team
to develop systematic, careful observation of user tasks

Task performance now relies on time as a standard by which to compare tasks. What opinion research can make such a claim? Data from opinion research can be difficult for web managers to compare or apply, but task-time is specific and concrete. Other data may get out-of-date, other evidence might be disproven by new evidence – but nobody disputes the length of a minute or a second. Time-on-task gives us a reliable way to better align a user experience with the expectations of users. It can measure the impact of confusing links and menus, or the impact of web content that is difficult to scan. Time-on-task gives you a comparable reference point as you improve your user experience over time. If you do not measure performance on a task, how can you improve it to be optimal for users? How else would you know if you are improving over months or years? Time has become a reliable measure of web performance – in any part of the world.

TIP: Regularly measure the time
it takes users to complete Top Tasks

There are cautions. Human behaviour towards time is not always rational. People lose track of time. People get impatient when a task takes too much time. Time flies when people are engrossed. To design a customer experience, it is more important to understand the behaviour than the time-on-task. Time is a tool to bring out when  you need to identify where you need to improve your user experience.

Task-timing helps a web team develop all-new skills for understanding behaviour. Time-on-task is an essential part of the services we provide. Bring us in to show you how usability testing or Task Performance Indicator testing can improve your user experience – measurably.

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Some key milestones in task-timing:

  • 3500 BC Shadow-clocks are used in Egypt – early sun-dials
  • 1500 BC Water-clocks, or clepsydra, are used in Egypt and Babylon
  • 1000BC Egyptian pyramid workers used lamps to know the end of a work-day
  • 500 BC Babylonians write of a day being twelve equal parts
  • 1280-1350 AD Mechanical clocks appear in London, Padua, Strasbourg, etc.
  • 1462 Bartholomew Manfredi builds a pocket-clock
  • 1475 The minute-hand appears on a clock face
  • 1508 Peter Henlein’s pocket-clock enabled a timepiece to go to the task
  • 1544 Guild of clock-makers is formed
  • 1577 Jost Burgi’s clocks for Tycho Brahe adds a seconds hand
  • 1656 Christiaan Huygens’ pendulum clock brings dramatic gains in accuracy
  • 1870 Standard Time proposal establishes uniform time zones
  • 1880 Frederick Taylor conducts time and motion studies
  • 1888 First time clock enables tracking time on the job
  • 1911 Frederick Taylor publishes Principles of Scientific Management
  • 2009 Customer Carewords creates the Task Performance Indicator

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Quote of the month


“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once”

Woody Allen


URLs in this post:

[1] two-minute warning: http://www.neoinsight.com/newsletter/0812.html#twominutewarning

[2] Back to Top: #top

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