Web Services

Get to grips with user stories and top activity on Alpha

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

We know how to deliver this information, of course through well-written and carefully structured content! But as content specialists we also have to think about the bigger picture, and the process of writing content for Alpha forced us to think about a few questions about our approach.

What have we learned about user stories?

We have asked website users to write user stories in our workshops. They say something like:

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

To put it in the context of the University, this could be:

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

The above example is very specific and this is really helpful when it comes to writing content for this need. Granular user stories are a solid foundation for producing task-based content. The ones we’ve struggled with tend to be pretty vague. For example, « tell me what professional services are offered » leaves us wondering what service this person really wanted to know about. Come to think of it, what is a “professional service” anyway?

We also realized that some user stories are bigger than others. Topics like visas, courses, and personnel pages could lead us down a metaphorical rabbit hole. They may require extensive consultation with stakeholders and subject matter experts, the content may even be owned by different parts of the University. We call these stories « epics » and they will be broken up into smaller stories and manageable pieces of work.

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

If a user story is indeed a primary activity, then providing content for that activity on a page with no other distractions is a good strategy.

How do we deal with related stories?

If two stories are closely related (for example, « order a dressing gown for graduation » and « dress code for graduation », then it will make sense to link and signal them to each other.

On this last point we are aware that sometimes we may want to go beyond simple linking and indicate to the user that the tasks must be completed in sequence. For example, in the case of graduation, we tell students that they must register on Evision and then pay all relevant fees before they can complete other tasks such as hiring suits. We need to think about how to create a solution for this type of situation that minimizes any ambiguity for the user.

We have the best tasks, but what about the small ones?

As Gerry McGovern (creator of Top Tasks Approach) states,

When a small task goes to sleep at night, dream of being a big task! Small 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 inevitably leads to another, and before we know it, our research is littered and structure jumbled with information that is irrelevant to the vast majority of our users. Of course, we can’t completely ignore all the little tasks, it’s just that answering these on the web isn’t always the answer. 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 place to provide certain types of information.

Ok, but what about small tasks that also have a high value?

We hear it a lot. The audience for a content item may be small but a visitor to that page (a funder for example) may make a significant investment in the University’s operations. This might be true however if the user need is niche but high value then we need to learn more about their journey and the pain points in their decision making. The potential to engage or convert them shouldn’t depend on a single piece of low-traffic content, there should be other opportunities, and we need a clear understanding of the different types of content we can deliver to them at all times.

What is the relationship between user needs and business goals?

Not surprisingly, there is a strong connection between user needs and business goals. Student recruitment is a key part of our business and the long list of activities on the Alpha course page reflects this. The same could be said of the open days, the campus and the accommodation.

Our website also serves a large internal audience, as evidenced by our Alpha topics for People, Support, Apps, and Events. If we can create a great user experience on these pages, we build credibility, trust and ultimately our brand.

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

Does a core activity approach result in a smaller website?

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