Getting to grips with user stories and top tasks on the Alpha

Creating content based on the top tasks of our users makes a lot of sense. The basic principle is that you can create a great user experience for the majority of visitors to your website if you focus on a relatively small subset of tasks. People come to our website looking to do stuff. They have decided that time spent looking on our pages is an investment and it will deliver them some sort of benefit. There’s a limit to their patience though (think seconds rather than minutes) so it’s important we give them the content they need. Fast.

We know how to supply this information – through well written and carefully structured content of course! But as content specialists we need to think about the bigger picture as well, and the process of writing content for the Alpha has forced us to ponder some questions about our approach.

What have we learnt about user stories?

We asked users of the website to write user stories in our workshops. They go something like:

As a [person in a particular role]
I want to [perform an action or find out something]
So I can [achieve my goal of…]

To put this in the context of the University, this might be:

As a student
I want to know how to order a robe for graduation
So I can attend my graduation ceremony and graduate from the University

The example above is very specific, and that’s really helpful when it comes to writing content for this need. Granular user stories are a sound basis for producing task-based content. The ones we’ve struggled with tend to be rather vague. For example, “tell me what professional services are on offer” leaves us wondering what service this person really wanted to learn about. Come to think about it, what’s a “professional service” anyway?

We’ve also realised that some user stories are bigger than others. Topics like visas, courses, and staff pages could take us down the metaphorical rabbit hole. They could require extensive consultation with stakeholders and subject matter experts, content may even be owned by different parts of the University. We call these stories ‘epics’ and they will be broken into smaller stories and manageable chunks of work.

Can we provide content for more than one user story on a web page?

If a user story is genuinely a top task then providing content for that task on one page without other distractions is a good strategy.

How do we deal with related stories?

If two stories are closely related (for instance, ‘ordering a robe for graduation’ and ‘dress code for graduation’ then it will make sense to link these and signpost one to the other.

On this last point we’re aware that sometimes we might want to go beyond merely linking and indicate to the user that tasks need to be completed sequentially. For example, in the case of graduation we tell students that they need to register on Evision then pay any relevant fees before they can complete other tasks like hiring robes. We need to give some thought as to how we create a solution for this kind of situation that minimises any ambiguity for the user.

We’ve got the top tasks but what about the tiny ones?

As Gerry McGovern (creator of the top tasks approach) states,

When a tiny task goes to sleep at night, it dreams of being a top task! Tiny tasks have high energy and ambition, and there are so many of them.

The problem with tiny tasks or edge case scenarios is that one invariably leads to another and, before we know it, our search is littered and structure muddied with information that is irrelevant to the vast majority of our users. Of course, we can’t completely dismiss all tiny tasks, it’s just that answering these on the web isn’t always the answer. We need to think about the entirety of a user’s journey (both online and offline), consider their emotional state and find out if there might be a more appropriate point to supply certain types of information.

Ok, but what about the tiny tasks that are high value too?

We hear this a lot. The audience for an item of content may be small but one visitor to that page (a funder for example) can result in a significant investment in the University’s activities. This might be true, however if the user need is niche but high value then we need to know more about their journey and the critical points in their decision-making process. The potential to engage or convert them shouldn’t hinge on a single item of low traffic content, there should be other opportunities and we need a clear understanding of the different types of content we can provide them at each point.

What’s the relationship between user needs and business goals?

Unsurprisingly, there is a strong connection between user needs and business goals. Student recruitment is a core aspect of our business and the long list of tasks on the Course page of the Alpha reflects this. The same could be said about open days, campus, and accommodation.

Our website also serves a large internal audience as demonstrated by the topics on the Alpha for staff, support, apps, and events. If we can create a great user experience on these pages then it builds credibility, trust, and ultimately – our brand.

As we move from the Alpha to Beta stages of website there will inevitably be content which relates more to business goals than user needs. We need to consider when to link to that content to maximise its value and usefulness to the business and the user.

Does a top tasks approach result in a smaller website?

Yes…..smaller, better, and with much much happier users.

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