The Insighter

June 2008

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Neo Insight's e-newsletter on Customer Experience topics and techniques.
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In this issue

Upcoming events

July 23, 2008 Webcast: Personas. Steve Calde (Cooper); Elizabeth Bacon (Devise).
August 1, 2008

Usability Challenge 2008. An online grass-roots contest

August 4-8, 2008

Agile2008. Toronto ON

October 13-16, 2008 User Interface 13 Conference. Boston MA

Key tasks bring a whole new way of managing the web

Our customers are generally aware that understanding users is one way to manage complexity. And they all face complexity – perhaps their websites are too large to manage; or they lack a governance structure; or their intranet has too many authors; or budgets are too tight to add web staff; or site management tools need to be replaced; or usability projects take too long to get off the ground; or decisions about page real estate are made without evidence from usability testing. But complexity should not distract us from the main point.

The complexity often distracts our clients from one main point – their website exists to deliver service. That is, their website exists to help users do things. But are people managing their website around that main point?

Take for instance the importance of one key task for municipal websites – online payment of traffic and parking tickets. In our metro area, only one in six is paid on the web. If we could improve the usability so more people paid on the web, cities could save tens of millions in paperwork, unpaid violations, etc. That in turn could save on taxes, which in turn would stimulate the economy. How much? There might be more than ten million tickets across Canada. The city of Toronto collects $79 million from parking tickets. 600,000 of those appear in court. Multiply that across other cities. Then, say we make the task more efficient and all cities follow suit, and payment of online tickets soars to ten million a year. For every minute we shave off that process, we would generate ten million saved minutes – huge economic stimulus. Consider ten million minutes saved – that would be 166,666 hours, or 20,833 work days, or 86 person-years. Conservatively, that's a lifetime we could save by making one key task one minute faster. Save a minute – save a lifetime. We get so caught up in the complexity of how web teams could ever cooperate to that extent, that we ignore the impact of focusing on a key task and delivering service. But such cooperation is possible – just look at the success of BizPal. We just need a new way of managing key tasks.

In fact there are probably a handful of other key tasks in Canada that could also be a huge economic stimulus. Key tasks on government websites include finding a job, coming to Canada, checking on a health condition or disease, checking the weather, or looking for grants or loans. No single website serves any of those. No single executive is managing any of those tasks. The complexity of managing those key tasks is in coordinating efforts across multiple websites, departments, or levels of government. It can be daunting. So it becomes easier for our clients to push for isolated change: a better search engine, a content management system, a new look. All great aims, but all missing the big opportunity to help users fulfill their task on the web. There is huge reward if people manage websites around key user tasks.

So, how can you bring this whole new way of managing tasks across web sites, across departments, and across levels of government? You may have already begun, so you may see your behaviours in some of the following. Here are some questions to ask yourself about how well you are managing key tasks:

  • Do I manage tasks instead of just content?
    Are you developing "task management systems" instead of "content management systems"? Are you spending more on task-management than you are on content-management? Why not start now to define the governance and business processes for managing user tasks? That way when some wiz-bang system comes along to automate the management of tasks, you can jump right in.

  • Do I know my "CTF" as well as "CLF"?
    Do you know the "common task flows" or just the "common look and feel"? Do you know the common paths users take through your site? Is your website compliant with those "CTF" as it is with "CLF2"? An organization-wide focus on user tasks has even more impact than a common navigational model.

  • Do I gather "task statistics" as well as "web statistics"?
    Do your web stats tell you how many times a key task was completed? Do you know how many visitors you lose when key links are not offered in the primary scanning area of landing pages? Are you measuring how many users completed the key task on your website? Admit it – decision-makers get frustrated now and then by web statistics. Wouldn't a task-based headline on your web stats look great?

  • Do I measure "TPIs" as well as "KPIs"?
    This is the strategic implication of the previous point. Is your group just running your website on usage statistics – or measuring the performance of your organization on key user tasks? Performance measurement people have Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Start measuring TPIs "task performance indicators" as well.

  • Is my web team organized by user tasks or by technical function?
    Is any web strategist identifying the key task flows on the website? Is anybody in charge of task completion? Is any manager measured by task-time? Are you assigned to a key landing page for a key user task? Are you coordinating efforts with other web teams serving similar user tasks? Maybe your "web manager" should be called the "user-task manager". Your web authors are really "task-flow authors" because they control how users step through a task on your website.

  • Am I observing users or just gathering public opinion?
    Are you making usability decisions based on usability testing rather than public opinion research or surveys? Are your executives seeing video clips of users experiencing usability issues? Are your senior managers logging onto live usability testing sessions? There is no replacement for observing behaviour. You will see that users do things that contradict the opinions they tell you. We have been testing users for over two decades. Direct observation by managers has never been more possible – and has never been as critical to a website's success.

Email us to explore these and other ways to manage tasks on your website. See the Customer Carewords website for more about government top tasks, measuring your task performance, and measuring how customer-centric your website is.

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Tips for working with Common Look and Feel (CLF 2.0)

We generated lots of discussion in our May Insighter article about CLF 2.0, the Government of Canada's Common Look and Feel standards and guidelines. Our readers responded to issues related to fluid design, the Search and Home buttons in the top bar, left navigational menus, and three columns. Here is some of the discussion.

Can CLF 2.0 allow the layout to fluidly stretch to the screen width?

If people want a fluid layout, CLF 2.0 does not provide a CSS for constraining the Min and Max widths because not all browsers support this. However, a link could be structured to make the page fluid over 100% of the window width. The user would then control how much they stretched it out. Unfortunately, the left and right columns are not affected by the fluid design. They stay at their locked widths. Section 9.2 of the CLF Template Technical Guide says:

To meet visual design requirements, it was necessary to fix the width of the template at 760 pixels. For some clients, an expandable template improves accessibility and/or usability.

Although CLF 2.0 does not allow the template to be expandable by default, clients can make Web pages using the template expandable by including the following client-side CSS in their custom style sheets: {
width : 100% !important;

Can Left Navigation menus change with the page context?

Left menus can be contextually sensitive. Breadcrumbs would suffice as a link back to Home or parent pages. Section 5.8 of the CLF Q&A seems to remove constraints:

"Institutions can decide what navigation scheme will suit their needs, including whether or not to offer sub site navigation or contextual menus."

Under CLF 2.0 guidelines, the ONLY mandatory link in the left hand navigation menu is "Proactive disclosure". We recommend that once a user is doing a task on your website, the left hand navigation should be specific to that task. Left-hand menu entries that are not specific to that task should disappear, such as "About the Department", "Ministers", or "What's New".

Is there flexibility in the Search and Home buttons in the CLF 2.0 navigation bar?

The buttons in the common menu bar are mandatory. The black Home must go to the Institutional Home and could be labelled e.g DFAIT Home. Certainly the rollover could say this.

The Search button has to lead to institutional search. However, parameters could be passed from a given page which could make it default to a given section but still have the capability to search the entire institution. Any on-page search box should clearly state the scope of the search.

Are three columns mandatory on a CLF 2.0-compliant Home page?

CLF 2.0 offers no room to move on this. Three columns are mandatory. However, people can use the middle content area and right column for whatever they want. The middle and right columns have fewer constraints than the left column.

CLF 2.0 resources recommended by our readers:

If you have comments on CLF 2.0, please email us. We’d love to hear from you.

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Hi, I'm a Mac! Hi, I'm UserVue!

If you do remote usability testing with UserVue, you may have rejected participants because Macintosh and UserVue are not compatible. But now we have a way to make them work together.

We do a lot of usability testing. We use Techsmith products because they are great products. Because of that we are also their representatives in Canada. TechSmith created UserVue to make remote usability testing possible.

So we use two of our own PCs to do this – let's call them PC1 and PC2. We run a UserVue session with PC1 as the participant's computer and PC2 as the facilitator's computer. We then run a screen-sharing program on PC1, hook up with the Mac, and allow the Mac to take control of PC1. Simple as that!

We also have other innovative ways of applying UserVue to meet your needs. So don't let the operating system stand in your way of testing users remotely. Ask us how to apply usability testing to your specific situation. If you have not seen remote usability testing, check out TechSmith's tutorial videos, or let us give you a brief demonstration over the phone!

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Link like Yoda

Links are critical to good web pages. Links are scanned by your web visitors. Links connect pages into a flow that can help users accomplish tasks. Yet the skills to write links are not widely learned. Good writers often are not trained in how to write good links. Good web writers often do not test the usability of the links they write.

In fact links can be nearly invisible to users if they are not designed well. See our article on other tips to make your lists easier to scan. One skill is to identify the words users scan for, and put them near the beginning of links that serve those user tasks.

Perhaps one way to think differently is to imagine how Yoda – the Star Wars character – might write. Yoda often puts specific information at the beginning of a phrase – as good links do. For instance these imaginary links place specific words first, and general words last, as Yoda might:

  • Specific it is, a good link

  • Quickly, users scan them

  • First, key words must go

  • Bulleted, they are easier to scan

This is just a whimsical way of remembering to think differently when writing links. Of course you have to write for humans. But perhaps this will help you remember: Users quickly scan the beginnings of links for specific words they recognize. So, write like Yoda might – change the order of your well-constructed sentence. Put specifics and keywords early in the link. Put general words last. Write so users notice links quickly. Contact us to understand how to get started. Visit the Customer Carewords site for how to identify the right words to use in key links.

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Quote of the month

“Life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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