The Insighter

September 2009

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

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In this issue

Upcoming events

Oct 19-23, 2009 HFES – Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, San Antonio, TX
Oct 22, 2009 CapCHISam Trusow on Fair Privacy Design and Practice
Nov 1-3, 2009 UI 14 – User Interface Engineering 's User Interface 14 Conference, Boston
Nov 2-5, 2009 UX Intensive – Adaptive Path's User Experience Conference, Wash., DC
Nov 12, 2009 World Usability Day – Designing for a Sustainable World – also in Ottawa – sign up for Neo Insight's FREE expert review event!

Tips from a brief history of time on task

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). Comparisons are easier for people.

TIP: Motivate web managers to improve task performance by comparing it to norms


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 only a tool. Use it to identify where things are going well, and where you need to investigate user behaviour in more depth.

Task-timing helps 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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It may give you insight just to review 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
  • 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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Top Task Management helps you sleep better

What keeps you up at night? Budget? Down time? Under-resourced projects? If these don't keep you awake, wondering what you don't know will, or what you are not focusing on.

How do you get back to sleep? How do you keep your eyes on the next big problems to solve? We have a short cut – we focus on human behaviour. We measure the most important and frequent user tasks. Top Tasks endure. Systems change. Technologies and systems become old news. That is because user behaviour and human needs change slowly. Systems develop rapidly to serve human needs, and are replaced quite quickly.

So Top Task Management is a way of managing websites differently, but is also is a way to help you sleep better. It gives you visibility into the relationship between enduring human needs and changing technological trends. It helps you recognize the potential in technologies that might be disruptive to your competitors. It helps you prioritize those nagging requests from your stakeholders. It gives you evidence to tell them why Top Tasks get the most space on your home page and on global and contextual navigational menus.

Ask yourself what worried you five years ago. With web growth rates, you worry about different things now than you did five years ago. And five years hence your worries will in turn be replaced by new things. Things that are not even on your radar now may be your big worries in the future. But your users' Top Tasks will remain very important. And humans will still be humans.

Look at early web publishing. Early applications, such as Adobe Page Mill or Microsoft Home Page have disappeared. They helped people publish early web content. But then humans needed to manage sites, so solutions like Dreamweaver and GoLive came along. Humans had not changed; their task was still to publish great web content. Then web sites grew dramatically, and large organizations needed ways to manage large amounts of content. So Content Management solutions came along. But all along, humans needed to publish great web content.

Managing your users' Top Tasks isn't just a nice idea. It will get you through the night.

Find out more about Top Task Management techniques:

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Managing below the "long neck"

Once you have determined your Top Tasks in the “long neck”, how do you deal with items in the “long tail”? The “long neck” refers to the 5% of your web content responsible for 80% of your web visits. The "long tail” is exemplified by e-commerce websites efficiently efficiently offering many unique low-traffic items.

There may be tens of thousands of pages in the long tail. By nature they are not important enough to be linked directly from your main page or navigational menus. These items may be too specific or numerous for global navigation, but when taken together too valuable to ignore. Ways to get users to long tail items are increasingly important to e-commerce sites like Amazon. Yet for many sites they pose challenges. Once navigational menus and links are focused on Top Tasks, routes to important long tail items may be less obvious - which makes links to Top Tasks more visible. But if an institution delivers value in the long tail it needs to be managed in different ways. Here are some ways to deal with it:

  • Archive it
    Out-of-date content frustrates users. Review and purge out-of-date content regularly.
  • Delete it
    Get rid of duplicate content and links that clutter up important pages
  • Contextualize it
    Create menus on lower level pages that are contextualized for that task with related links read how contextual navigation helps people stay focused on task
  • Optimize it
    Help search engines find it – Search is the most effective way to find long tail items
  • Guide searchers to it
    Offer filters or facets in the search process – Offer keywords that help users refine their search. Or offer selections near your search box to show only specific subsets of items; e.g. by product, by type of numbered document, within a given price range, of a particular size, etc.
  • Exclude it
    If content does not fit a category above, or is in-progress, or is not a desirable landing page, or will create noise in search results on external search engines, keep it from being indexed by search engines Gerry McGovern says “manage all aspects of search – getting found and NOT getting found”

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How people use the Customer-Centric Index

Gerry McGovern, in partnership with Neo Insight, is offering a free Customer-Centric Index to qualified organizations. It is a unique two-minute poll that allows you to focus your scarce resources on the areas where they will achieve maximum improvement and impact. The output is strategic priorities of what's most annoying your customers.

Contact us soon to see if you qualify. This is a limited time offer. If you like the impact it gives you, read on to see some ways to apply it further.

The Customer Centric Index (CCI) has been part of the Customer Carewords portfolio in Canada since 2008, and elsewhere in the world prior to that. Here are some ways people have used it:

  1. As a part of a Customer Carewords project
    The CCI got started just like this – as a brief portion of the Customer Carewords poll to help prioritize usability resources.

  2. As a starting point to a Customer Carewords project
    The CCI will tell you how urgently you need to define Top Tasks. If users say that your site has "Confusing menus and links", you will have the evidence to motivate your team to study your Customer Carewords.

  3. As ongoing data-gathering
    Compare your customers' responses quarterly or yearly to measure the impact of changes you’ve made to your site.

  4. As a way to compare their website to similar websites
    Universities this year have been sharing their data in a “league table” format. It allows comparison of their performance against higher-education institutions in general.

  5. As a way to compare inputs from key user segments on the website
    Respondents tick which user segment best describes them, allowing Customer Centric Index scores to be compared across user segments.

  6. In their customers' own language
    The Customer Centric Index is multi-lingual. Data has been gathered in English, Swedish, French, Dutch, and Norwegian. It has been administered in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, USA, Norway, and Canada.

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Free Expert Review of your Customer Experience!

World Usability Day is November 12th. To celebrate, the experts of Neo Insight offer you a confidential, FREE one-hour expert review of your website, application, or product! We guarantee at least two of Neo Insight's experts will be on-hand, live, to give you the low-down on your Customer Experience.

We will walk through the website or application with you, asking you questions about the intended business goals, users and tasks. Based on this information, we will highlight the key usability issues as we see them, and provide you with design recommendations to improve your users' experience. The session will be entirely confidential: only the Neo Insight experts, you, and whoever you invite will see the review. After the session, we will provide you with a high level summary of our findings and recommendations.

For the online session, we will use GoToMeeting, UserVue, or other online collaboration application. You will need to have access to a computer with a high speed connection to the Internet, plus speakers or headset with a microphone, or a telephone.

This free offer is only good on November 12th. Contact us to find out more or to book your timeslot on World Usability Day. Please include a link to your product, application, or website, if possible.

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Quote of the month

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

Woody Allen


If you have any comments on The Insighter, or ideas on usability topics you'd like to hear about, send us an email.


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