Top tasks include a list of 10 or fewer things that users should be able to do with the design in order to be successful if people can’t do them, the design has failed. I learned the value of top tasks in 1991 during the good old days at Lotus Development Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where teams were forward thinking risk takers and the future was bright.
Even with the whiz kid and cowboy development mentality we had, we also had top tasks for the presentation software we were designing. The types of things in the list were simply these make a title page, make a chart, make a bulleted list, use data from a Lotus one, two, three spreadsheet, add images and give a screen show. The power of top tasks is they focus the team on the same important things. And while other tasks and features unrelated to top tasks can exist, they don’t in any way impair the top tasks. Top tasks also help us maintain balance in research, like when doing a usability test of the most esoteric area. We always also test at least one top task. Another way we use top tasks is as the guide for a heuristic evaluation to create a top task list. I begin by interviewing and or surveying internal stakeholders for user research. I combine a few methods like field studies, interviews, analytics analysis and a survey that includes both open and closed ended questions from that research with users and stakeholders. I form a hypothesis or a list of often about 100 tasks. I then survey users and possibly potential users and ask them to choose their top ten from my hypothesis list and the most selected ones make up the top ten list. Now, having a top task list is way more important than having a perfectly researched top task list.
So if the process I describe seems prohibitive to your situation, use a quick and dirty method like a survey with open ended questions that let respondents write in which things they use or want to sift through all the responses and choose the most mentioned ones to be on your list. Once I have the top test list, I immediately discuss it and share it with my team and ask them to post it in team spaces and any other key places near everyone’s workspace. Top test then become a useful tool and a strong part of the vision about our users.