OPINION: Website users come with first and second tasks

15 Mar 2014

Gareth Dunlop, owner of user-experience consultancy Fathom

The informed website manager gains great insights about how to run a successful site by spending time with users, understanding what matters to them and observing them using it.

And rarely do those insights produce better results than in the structuring, prioritisation and ordering of the presentation of content. A pattern which we observe time and time again in matching user priorities with website architecture is that frequently customer needs can be separated into first and second tasks.

Ruminating on the human spiritual condition in 1942, CS Lewis postulated regarding “first and second things”, that if humans didn’t attend to their first thing that no amount of second things could fill the gap left by the absence of the first thing. Lewis’ assertion was that our first thing was a pursuit of God, a discussion which we will have to leave for another day.

The pattern of first and second tasks similarly states that typically users have a really important first task or tasks and they will only be interested in secondary tasks if they complete the first task successfully. The user-fulfilment of first tasks puts the marketer in the race, the user-fulfilment of second tasks give the marketer a shot at winning the race. But crucially, the marketer can’t win the race until they are in it.

In CS Lewis parlance, no amount of second tasks, however well fulfilled, can ever replace the void left by an uncompleted first task.

When we see this expressed in practical terms on websites which we use regularly it seems so obvious, which begs the question why more websites don’t take this approach.

Example: choosing a university

Consider a university which has excellent student support services, great sports facilities, close links with industry and a wide range of academic courses. How should they structure their content according to first and second tasks? The prospective student’s first task is to find a course which suits his or her needs. If they can’t find a course they like, then no amount of services, sports or industry links is going to persuade them to attend the university. However, once a prospective student identifies a course he or she likes, then complementary information, such as support, sports and industry links become an important consideration in the decision-making process. The course information puts the university in the race and the additional information gives the university the chance of winning the race.

Airline websites increasingly want to sell us car hire, accommodation at our destination, travel insurance and other add-ons. If they don’t let us book flights quickly and easily to our destination we will never hire a car or book a hotel through that website.

This means that the differentiators which close the deal or win the race shouldn’t be contrived into first tasks if they don’t belong there. They should be published at the right stage of the customer’s journey.

Professional services businesses quite rightly work hard on their reputations and frequently use referrals and testimonials as a means of helping to secure new business. The prospective client arriving on a professional services website has a series of first tasks to do with understanding the company’s service offering, CVs of their senior people, client list, agency size and “fit”. Only when the user is assured of these items does he or she then start to think about testimonials and referrals.

Again, the first task of the professional services business is to assure the prospective client that they can deliver the service, the second task is to tell the user why they can deliver that service uniquely well, part of which is likely to include the display of testimonials. There is no need to unnaturally push the testimonial information as a first task.

We know that if your users fail at their first attempt to complete their first task, only 50pc will give you a second chance. Work hard to understand your first tasks and keep yourself in the race.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Fáilte Ireland, Power NI, Performance Alloys, Ordnance Survey Ireland, and Savile Row. Visit Fathom online.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.