Top tasks and user experience with Gerry McGovern

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Show we discuss user experience, top tasks and the role of aesthetics with Gerry McGovern.

Skip to the interview (18:36) or this week’s links.

The transcription for this week’s show has been kindly provided by the team at Mailchimp. Awwwards are responsible for Marcus’ joke, but despite that they really are very nice people. Support the show

Paul: Hello and welcome to, the podcast for all those involved in designing and developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul and I am being joined as always by Marcus ‘Click-bait’ Lillington.

Marcus: That’s a bit harsh?

Paul: No it’s not, I’ve seen your latest blog post, right?

Marcus: All I learnt from the Master.

Paul: Does Agile methodology lead to poor interface design? I have this bit of umm, a great little app called Chart Beats —I’ll put a link in the show to it—that gives me live stats of the website. And you have caused the biggest spike I’ve ever seen on the Headscape website. It’s just gone absolutely nuts.

Marcus: Yeah, well, you know… I know you’re not going to believe me but I kind of wrote that without thinking ‘Oh this will stir it up a bit’ or even ‘This is something that a lot of people are talking about’. I’ve kind of realised that since. It’s kind of weird – obviously I have got my finger on the pulse without realising it. So there you go!

Paul: See, all this time you have been trendy and cool without even knowing it!

Marcus: Most people seem to agree with me, not everyone, but that’s the way of life isn’t it really.

Paul: Yeah, but no, it’s a good article I have to say. Also I suppose I ought to put a link to the article as well in the show notes.

Marcus: Thank you. I have to say it did go out on Tuesday and it wasn’t until you posted it on your site Paul, that it went a bit bonkers.

Paul: Well yea, I mean, that’s hardly surprising but…

Marcus: ‘Cause you’re so famous.

Paul: … it is a far more popular article than my last couple of ones.

Marcus: Well that’s something.

Paul: So there you go.

I’m enjoying it actually. I’m enjoying writing articles, but it seems I am also enjoying bullying the rest of the Headscape staff—‘Hi guys!’—but they seem to be enjoying it as well. There’s been some moaning, but everyone’s going ‘Oh yeah, and here’s mine and…’

Paul: See now, that’s funny because I spent, what… thirteen years trying to persuade people to write bloody posts.

Marcus: Well you know what the problem was there?

Paul: What?

Marcus: You were too prolific. They thought ‘Oh well, Paul will write something’

Paul: Yeah, I know…

Marcus: But there you go.

Paul: There you go.

Marcus: I’m not enjoying the amount of work that I am having to do at the moment though. And I know you’re feeling exactly the same.

Paul: Yeah, but mine’s self-inflicted. Yours is…is… you know…

Marcus: One of those things?

Paul: …one of those things that’s changing.

Marcus: I’m having to be a bloody Project Manager and like a ‘Proper’ Project Manager.

Paul: Oh no. That’s not going to work.

Marcus: Leigh is being a ‘Proper’ Project Manager as well.

Paul: I don’t know which is worse really? It’s kind of equally terrifying that both of you are Project Managing. But even more terrifying than that, I’m having to Project Manage myself!

Marcus: Yeah, but at least it’s just you.

Paul: Yeah, that’s true. I’m not screwing up anybody else’s work.

Marcus: Yeah. Although Leigh’s really stepping up to the plate. He’s moaning about it, but it’s like ‘Yeah, you’re doing a great job – you’ll have to do more!’

Paul: Do you know, in some ways I think it’s almost easier to just… yeah…especially if you are managing yourself, if that makes sense – the work you are actually doing. It actually makes a lot of sense really. I mean Project Managers are a waste of time.


He says… going to talk at a Project Management conference later on in the year.

Marcus: No, Pete is hugely missed already and he is still here.

Paul: So Pete Boston is going to join Rob Borely?

Marcus: He is, yes.

Paul: At Dootrix?

Marcus:* Yes.

Paul: Which is… so Rob used to work with us for years and years and years and then somebody dropped a huge amount of money on him. And once he’d recovered from the shock he set up a company. Which is doing really well!

Marcus: Yes he is doing really well. I mean, I had a lovely chat with him oh, I don’t know, probably getting on for a month ago now. But even though the situation they were in, they still had a sticky patch in the middle of last year.

Paul: Yeah, everybody did.

Marcus: But they are back to being run off their feet again. So they need a Project Manager and they’ve stolen Pete.

Paul: Bastards.

Marcus: Yeah. But I’ve got a possible lead on that front, but I’ll tell you about that one when it might come to something.

Paul: Oh! Is it a lead for me, cause I could do with more work, ‘cause I’m just sitting around on my hands.

Marcus: No, no, not a lead for work – a lead for another Project Manager.

Paul: Oh I see! Oh, that’s exciting. There’s so much going on, it’s all change.

Marcus: Yeah, and you don’t get to hear about hardly any of it, or you do a week later.

Paul: Yeah, well that’s alright. I don’t mind that. I don’t want to hear all the ins-and-outs of Headscape. You’re not that interesting.

Suddenly for the first time, I’ve realised how boring this podcast must have been for years.

Marcus: What? It’s not now? It’s still boring!

Paul: No, no, because now it’s talking about my exciting new career life.

Marcus: Ahh well, maybe when you retire Paul, you’ll realise that’s boring too?


Paul: Quite possibly. Quite possibly.

So I’m doing lots of cool things at the moment. Can I tell you of some of the cool things I am doing?

Marcus: Yeah, go on then.

Paul: I’m involved in a start-up. None of this boring kind of, you know, stuff I used to do at Headscape. I’m working with the trendy start-up.

Marcus: ‘Involved with’. What does that mean?

Paul: I’m doing some Consultancy…

Marcus: Aha…

Paul: …and helping them with the user interface design and feature set and marketing and all kinds of stuff. It’s really fun. But I can’t tell you about it yet. It’s a secret. Shhhhh!


Marcus: Ok. Sounds great… I think.

Paul: So no, I’m enjoying that, that’s a good one.

I’m recording lots of videos, which is cool as well. It’s all cool, everything’s cool.

Marcus: Yes I saw that you were persuading yourself to buy a MacBook Pro?


Paul: Yeah.

Marcus: Have you bought it yet?

Paul: No… I can’t afford it. Bastards. That’s the one thing I miss about Headscape – which is being able to buy random shit. Somehow it was even more enjoyable when it was going to upset Chris. Now it’s just going to upset me and it takes the joy out of it.

Marcus: Has Cath taken over the role of Chris?

Paul: Yeah, to some extent. She did let me buy a teleprompter, mind.

Marcus: Yeah?

Paul: Which is very cool. Did we talk about that on last week’s show?

Marcus: No, well… I don’t know. We talked about it. Whether it was on the show or not, I’ve no idea.

Paul: Anyway. So, yes…. Things are going well. Life is good. Hurrah!

Let’s talk about sponsors, talking about making money.

Marcus: Go on then.

Paul: Hey we’ve got a good sponsor this week. Mailchimp.

Marcus: They are a good sponsor, well they are a good company, whether they are a good sponsor…

Paul: Well they’ve taken a lot of my money, so I don’t think they are that good actually. I seem to spend a lot of money with them on the newsletter. Can people stop signing up for my newsletter? Because the bigger my list goes, the more it costs me money!

Marcus: I don’t care, by the way.

Paul: Sorry?

Marcus: I don’t care one jot.

Paul: No you don’t. No. It’s very expensive running a mailing list.

No actually this is not a good way to start talking about a sponsor is it? They’re very expensive?

Marcus: Yeah, we kinda didn’t do so well on the last couple of episodes on ‘bigging up’ the sponsors. So maybe… I’m just going to shut up – well I shut up anyway and you still manage to dig yourself a hole.

Paul: It was me that did it, yeah.

Mailchimp. I’ve been using them for years and they are really very, very good. And they’re again another one of the sponsors that ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll help pay for the transcription of the podcast, that’s fine. Here’s a wodge of cash.’ ‘What do you want me to say about you?’ ‘I dunno, whatever…’


Paul: It’s great! So we’ve got them in five episodes, so I’ll spread out the things I’m going to say about them, otherwise we will cover it too quick. All I wanted to say is this week is that they’ve got loads of really nice, pre-designed templates that you can edit and mess with.

Now actually, later in the series, completely unrelated to this we are going to be talking to Fabio who is the guy who does their HTML templates for Mailchimp and we didn’t know that when we booked him on. And he’s just fascinating. It’s a great interview about how horrendously bad it is creating HTML email templates. So if you do want to get into that side of things you might want to get with Mailchimp because there are a load of templates that you can use to start yourself off.

But even better, they have a newsletter builder which is shockingly flexible. I use the word shockingly flexible because it’s this kind of WYSIWIG build your own newsletter/email thing. But the kind of horrendous code it has to produce under the hood in order to be able for your email to work on as many different email clients as possible is so impressive that I can’t believe they have managed to allow so much flexibility when they’re so constrained in what they can do.

Then it’s obviously got the normal stuff like merge tags and that kind of thing. So if you want to reference somebody’s first name or some other field from the database you can easily do that. And then of course you’ve got the great forms you can just pop into your website as you can see if you go to at the bottom of every page on our website there’s a form field which allows you to sign up directly with Mailchimp. But what’s quite nice about that is we use their API to do it. So rather than just copying and pasting their code, which obviously they’ve got that kind of option for people who aren’t as technical, if you want to do something a bit different, or in our case we wanted to really pass it through our filters and things like that, then you can connect straight into their API and do it that way – which is awesome.

So they’ve got a really flexible, powerful system. If you want to find out more about them or give them a go – because below a certain threshold I don’t think you have to pay actually. So again this is the kind of thing I should know… as somebody that is supposedly being a professional advertiser person… let me just have a look…

Yeah, you get two thousand subscribers for free. So definitely just go and give it a go and try it out for yourself. It’s really very powerful, very good. And you can get started really quickly. So to find out more about them go to

So there you go – that is our first sponsor.

Next up? Our interview.

Marcus: Yes. This is a good one.

Paul: You like this one, do you?

Marcus: Yeah I think he’s fantastic, Gerry McGovern.

Paul: Gerry is just absolutely awesome. I got into a… you remember we interviewed Kristina Halvorson a while back who herself is a towering figure within the web design community? And there was me and her talking on twitter and we basically—I was going to say ‘fanboys’ but she’s a ‘fangirl’—about Gerry McGovern who is just this kind of amazing figure. If you haven’t come across Gerry McGovern he is a user experience expert. He’s an Irish guy and he’s just… absolute no bullshit. If he doesn’t like something he’ll tell you. He’s very rude about marketers, so if you are a marketer you have been warned. He’s very rude about design for design’s sake. And he’s just a very knowledgeable guy. He does this thing called Top Tasks which we talked about before and I think it was him that coined that approach and he does a lot of work in that area.

So brilliant interview, very, very, funny. I feel very sorry for the transcriber of this show!

Marcus: Yes quite…he talks so fast.

Paul: This is going to be a nightmare… Just unbelievable.

Marcus: Anyway.

Paul: The other thing I wanted to say about Gerry before we kick off is he has a great newsletter of his own and we will put a link in the show notes obviously to him and all of his stuff. And he also writes webinars—free webinars—every now and again, where he gets different people in and has conversations with them. But he did one with me recently, and I’ll put a link into the show notes about that as well, where we were talking about how to persuade Senior Management to undertake digital change. And again, very insightful, very interesting guy to chat with. So here’s the interview with him anyway.

Gerry McGovern on user experience design

Gerry McGovern

Paul: So thanks for joining us Gerry, it’s good to have you on the show. How are you doing these days? You always seem so busy whenever I talk to you?

Gerry Oh pretty good Paul. Busy, busy, but busy in a good and productive way. I think there’s always lots of interesting work out there for ourselves if we just search a bit further. It’s definitely there and the whole environment is gradually maturing so I don’t think we’ll be out of work for a few years yet.

Paul: Oh damn. I was hoping for an early retirement, but there you go.

So Gerry, you’re probably best known for Top Tasks. That’s kind of your thing and you’ve been talking about it on and off for years and it’s kind of a methodology that you have implemented most successfully. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is and why you feel it works well?

Gerry The essence of it Paul is to identify what are the Top Tasks, but equally what I call are the Tiny Tasks. And I’m saying that when a Tiny Task goes to sleep at night, it dreams of being a Top Task.


And we’re in the middle of a huge project at the moment and it’s the same issue again and again. Everybody agrees what the really important stuff are but the whole argument and debate and the politics around the lower level stuff which is demanding a greater priority – we often find there is an inverse relationship in companies. The more important it is to the customer, the less content or stuff they are doing on it – the less important it is. That relationship of when it’s very little significance to the customer, they are making a huge a huge effort and when it is a huge significance to the customer, they’re making a small effort because they want to push this stuff. So Top Tasks is kind of a league table from the most important to the least important so that you can identify the stuff that has low relevance and have the evidence not to prioritise it in your design or in your management or in your architecture or going forward. That you can defend difficult decisions of what you are not going to focus on.

Paul: Yeah, now that makes a lot of sense. So how do you go about gathering those Top Tasks then?

Gerry Well all sorts of sources. In a lot of stuff that we do now we try and be agnostics so to speak. We don’t talk about the current website or current environment. We recently we did a large city in the UK and in the discussions and in the research. So we looked out there – What’s were the questions coming in from citizens or visitors or people coming to the city? And we know that hospitals and health authorities – ‘Where to find a local hospital in this city’ was something that was coming up in the external research. Now it wasn’t coming up from their website because they didn’t have anything on hospitals because they said ‘That’s the NHS, that’s not us. We’re a municipality or a council or whatever. We don’t do that stuff’.

But then when the vote came in it was the number three task…

Paul: Right.

Gerry … in the environment. So we tried to trawl a very broad net like a number of years ago we did Microsoft Visual Studio Developer Technologies. And we found a great resource there was all the external communities that were talking about using Developer Technologies and stuff like that. When people are buying a car, we wouldn’t just look at we’d look at how people are searching on google. So we are trying to look at the world of the task environment. If you are looking after your health… we don’t just limit it to the website or the environment that the organisation has at the moment. We try and do a situational analysis on ‘In dealing with your health, what are the core things that are coming up in multiple different environments?’

So it’s a big exercise. To develop the task list and a lot of it is almost like a change management process where we work with the organisation. Actually people do want to do things. A lot of organisations don’t actually believe people come to their websites to do things.

Paul: At all?

Gerry They have this big thing like ‘Oh they are just looking for information’. And what that means that they don’t really need it for anything, they are just vaguely looking for this vague kind of thing called information. And once we’ve just put loads on information up on the website, won’t that be ok?

And the idea that they need this information to do something practical is often a revelation to a lot of people.

Paul: Yeah, because that was the question I was going to come on to, which was ‘Do Top Tasks apply to Brochure-ware sites – content-heavy websites?’ Because when you hear the word ‘Task’ you think of filling in a form or using an application or something like that. But I presume that when you talk about Tasks that encompasses questions that people need answering to then complete a task? If that makes sense?

Gerry Totally. And absolutely. And there is often that mental separation that content—and I think it comes from the world of the content order being so dislocated to the consumption of the content—that a great many of them truly believe that the content has any use. That’s actually, you know… useful. Like if I’m coming to do work this morning—and I hate the dark mornings—and I go ‘Dublin sunrise’. That to me may be a small task but it’s still something I want to know. It’s a thing I want to do. And that information-based task, ‘Do I qualify for this pension?’… that’s a task. And maybe the next step will be ‘Now that I see that I qualify, I might apply for it’. So we can break tasks into different ones, but the essence of the web is a doing environment. We don’t say ‘Oh my doctor says I should search, its good for me so I try and search everyday on what to search for…’

A need comes up in our lives and then we go to search.

Paul: I think it’s almost left over from the very early days of the web where you did used to browse the web for fun. I remember doing that. I would go online and just see what was about. But nobody does that anymore, but that seems to me, stuck in people’s mentality in some way. It’s very peculiar.

Gerry There’s an element of that Paul. You remember the very early days? You’d meet somebody, you’d meet a friend and you’d say ‘I didn’t know Singapore had a Hockey Club!’


Gerry You’d gather totally useless pieces of information because you were just amazed by this web thing. And then two months later you just had your local football club, BBC… we narrowed in very quickly just the things that we really care about.

Paul: That kind of gets into… when you talk about Top Tasks and you talk about actions and taking actions on websites it kind of gets into the realms of user experience design. And what user experience design is and where it starts and stops. Because as soon as you get an issue like…a complaints procedure on an airline, ok? So they are going onto the website because they are unhappy with something and they want to complete a complaints procedure. Then you kind of get into the realms of not just how the website responds to it, but then what the backend systems are that support that. Or why the complaint came up in the first place.

So where does this start and stop in terms of what you get involved with as a user experience specialist?

Gerry Well it’s a very messy world isn’t it Paul.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry I remember at a conversation years ago with a guy that had a contact form on the website. And it went someplace but nobody ever looked at the emails.


It was true! And I was saying to the guy ‘It’s going into an inbox and nobody’s ever looking at the inbox!’

And the guy says… ‘Yeah?’

‘Don’t you think that is a problem?’

And the guy says ‘No? Why should I think it’s a problem? The form is working?’

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry That sort of thinking… ‘the complaints form is working – it’s just that nobody responded to the complaints – not my problem’. And that what makes our world very messy and difficult in that if you don’t book the flight to Dublin and I suppose ultimately if the flight doesn’t take off and land you in Dublin, you’re not going to be happy with Aer Lingus or whoever you’re dealing with. So we are, whether we like it or not, interconnected to a whole load of other teams and elements and if the whole chain of the task doesn’t work well everybody gets a bit of the blame.

Paul: Yeah. The real sign I think of a good user experience designer is somebody who is willing to follow the rabbit hole to the very end.

Gerry Exactly.

Paul: To not say ‘well this is my bit and this is where I stop’. The number of times I have come across organisations where people will express massive frustration with different parts but they do nothing to fix it because they see it as somebody else’s problem and nobody ever pursues things to the very end of the line. That’s a huge frustration to me.

The likes of you and me, we’ll wade into anything. We’ll interfere where we are not wanted.


Paul: I remember a great example is the whole incident with the guy who tweeted or took out a promoted tweet about British Airways and their Customer Service division. And the whole thing had blown up because somebody had lost his Father’s luggage. And he tried to complain about it, but they were only open business hours and so he tweeted about it…and they only responded to tweets in business hours in weekdays. So in his frustration, he took out a promoted tweet and it blew up and it became this big thing.

So what was British Airways’ solution?

To make sure their Social Media department was open 24/7. They didn’t in anyway try and fix the lost luggage problem. I mean that was half the issue.

Gerry Yeah. At least they made half an attempt there.

Paul: Yes, that’s true.

Gerry I mean, somebody else would probably go out and hire an advertising agency to make up more tweets so that this guy’s tweet would get downgraded in the process. But it’s putting that jigsaw together…

I remember years ago seeing a great T-shirt in Belfast where the Titanic was built. On the front of it was a picture of the Titanic but on the back of the T-shirt as ‘It was alright when it left here’.


Paul: Yes, that’s spot on. It’s interesting there that you mentioned advertising agencies being hired to push out marketing stuff. I have to say one of the great things of reading Gerry’s blog is that he likes to have a bit of a go at marketing design and branding people. So I am really interested… you do tend to slam this group of people. Now obviously a lot of people that listen to this podcast fall into these categories, so where do you draw the line with design and branding? Do you think it has a place, and if so how does that fit in with your kind of world view?

Gerry Absolutely and unquestionably. And actually my background is in marketing.

Paul: Oh right, you’re allowed to then.

Gerry But I think it’s a new form. I think it’s a whole new world that we need to approach and design has been hijacked by superficial design. I forget that the guy—Dyson— has talked about this as well about how in the last thirty years of the twentieth century…that….. Design used to be about how it worked, whereas in the last thirty years of twentieth century it became exclusively connected with how it looked.

Now we need both, but we need rebalancing. And if you think of the brands that have emerged, the super brands… is google a brand built on how it works, or how it looks? Twitter – how it looks or how it works? Even Facebook, Amazon… look at the super brands of the last fifteen years, they are brands that have been built on the social capital of how it works much more than how it looks.

And of course it’s not one or the other, but we need a rebalancing and I think we need… also marketers are inherently trained to get attention. Marketers have very little capacity to give attention. And I think we need a new type of marketers that are much more focused on being useful. A lot of where I see the same problems today is often in the support website. Where people are figuring out ‘how do you configure this thing out, how do you do…’ And people often making decisions to buy or not to buy based on areas of the organisation that historically were never considered to be drivers of the sale.

So I think we need a very significant cultural organisational shift in what marketing is in a modern world. And if we change this attention…arms race?! we are constantly chasing attention which is a limited resource in a world which is exploding with things trying to get attention. If we continue that game it’s going to be a race to the bottom.

But if we instead look at… and good search engine optimisation is where you actually say ‘well, what are people actually looking for?’ Rather than trying to change their mind there’s already hundreds of them out there already saying…

The way I consider a search – is a search is like advertising. If we consider that the customer is now the marketer, the customer is the advertiser and they go out onto the web and they market a need either by their behaviour how they search, or where they click or what they do. And we almost have to transform the relationship that we are responding to an ad from our customers first and foremost. And we need a very different shift in culture. But the need to be actually good at creating, helping people make decisions to buy is a huge area. But it’s a big transformation that’s required in the marketing outlook away from….

The whole language of marketing is so wrong. It’s so wrong. I mean conversions…

Have you tried converting a Protestant into a Catholic recently?


No, conversion is not easy in this day and age. Like when was the last time you went on the web and you wanted to buy a pair of golf clubs and you ended up booking a flight to Dublin?

We don’t convert people easily and their attention. It’s a limited environment. So instead of converting, facilitating on an already articulated need which is out there in the millions. People are out there every day, wanting to buy stuff. And marketers should be making sure that all those people want to buy from them, actually can buy from them.

Paul: It’s also a difference in attitude in terms of it always used to be as marketers ‘We’ve got a product. We have to convince people to buy that product’. But now we live in a world where actually we are getting constant feedback from users that should be shaping the product that we are then taking to the market place.

Gerry Exactly. There is a co-creation process and we are getting this constant feedback that is refining our product based on this sort of…

The web is this incredible laboratory of human behaviour and we can dip in and adapt and change and facilitate and as these new needs are emerging. And of course there will always be the mad genius that comes up with the new thing that the market research will never have really identified. But for the vast majority of us out there its hum-drum, and roll-the-sleeves-up-and-figure-out-what-the-customer-wants and keep like the constant data type of evolution. So there’s much more research, I mean that’s what Big Data is about.

Paul: Yeah, and that’s interesting. And let’s come onto Big Data. Not that it was on my list of questions, but why the hell not?

I think Big Data has got both its pros and cons in my experience. It can be a very overwhelming thing for people to deal with and also it’s easy to misinterpret sometimes. And you need to know what you are doing, going in. So what kind of advice do you give to organisations you work with that have huge amounts of data, is where to begin with it all?

Gerry It’s a hugely complicated area Paul. The one thing we do know is that it’s there.

Paul: Yes…. Ok.


Gerry And it wasn’t there ten years ago. It’s there and massively growing. And what it is, is it’s human behaviour. I mean some big day this machine behaviour, well an awful lot of Big Data is the record of human behaviour. So, it’s very, very difficult for the exact reasons that you’ve articulated, that it’s incredibly easy to misinterpret. To see cause rather than effect. What’s caused an effect?

We need the skills and we need to develop the skills of interpreting this record of human behaviour. And the better we become at it of reading, we’re like these hunters so to speak—maybe that’s a terrible word as well—the tracks in the sand. You can go there as a tourist to the Serengeti, and you don’t have a clue, but if you go with a good guide they can tell you how many Wildebeest went by this way or whatever. Being able to read the data is one of the greatest skills that needs to be developed.

And it can probably four years, six even for some people, eight years. A four year degree course and four and five years more of active experience before you become even reasonably good at it. But like it’s there, and those that become really good at it, will be competitively superior because they will understand what is happening in the market place than better than those who don’t. There is no escaping it. It is there. And some people will take advantage of it, and some people won’t. And those who properly interpret it will gain competitive advantage and those who don’t properly interpret it, won’t.

Paul: Yeah, I do think it’s going to become one of the big growth specialist areas that people that can sift through this information and draw out key nuggets about it.

Marcus: Can I jump in there a sec?

Paul: Yeah?

Marcus: Because one thing…we were talking about Top tasks earlier…one thing that I found that frustrates me and also, you mentioned Gerry about, basically, if you can put together a kind of priority list you can show people, that ‘Your tasks are tiny tasks so we can push them down the list’. But what often comes back to me is that if we’ve surveyed users, people, users of a website or something like that. If we’ve spoken to them face to face or gotten them to fill in forms, what often comes back to me when I am trying to argue a case for something is ‘Oh well you only got the extreme views. You only got the lovers or the haters. You didn’t get the actual users of whatever it is we are talking about’. So that’s kind of connected to this Big Data thing. If you can read Big Data, then you are getting everything rather than just these necessarily extreme views. So my question to you is ‘How do you deal with, if you are trying to get some kind of feedback from users of a website, how do you get around this ‘You are only getting the lovers or the haters’ view?’

Gerry Well it’s a great question Marcus, and what we’ve found and this is where it can be good is that you can verify it with the Big Data. We’ve done a lot of work with Cisco and the Top Task there would have been: Download stuff for configuration and troubleshooting. Tasks like that. So then we would make to the data on the website on how much stuff has been downloaded, how many configuration manuals have been looked at, what sort of troubleshooting activity is occurring, what pages?

We found almost a like for like. This method breaks every rule of survey design, it’s a crazy method. When we send out a final list, we just did it recently with the European Commission and it was the biggest ever, and we had about seventy to eighty tasks. And over a hundred thousand people voted. Absolutely massive, in twenty eight countries. So we give people this massive list and it fries the brain but it works. And they can only choose their top five. But whenever we charted back with other data sources, and we always try and do that, we find like surprising gaps like ‘Oh this organisation do stuff about health so you don’t find stuff there’ but where it does map, where they do adopt their data sources, they tend to map very strongly.

So we’ve done over four hundred surveys, almost over four hundred thousand people have voted in the last ten years and we find it’s not lovers and haters, a lot of people come back to us saying that. But when we map back to other data sources we find that you do actually get a reasonable number like typically two to four hundred people plus voting you begin to get a representative sample of your own broad population. But if you are worried, map it back to other data sources and see are there disconnects so to speak. But most of the time, Marcus, we’ve found that actually we get a reasonable reflection of the world that is out there.

Marcus: Ok, that’s really helpful, thank you.

Paul: I do find that an interesting area that I think a lot of people do have this image that you do get the extremes, and I suspect to some degree you do, but if you are drawing from enough data sources that shouldn’t necessarily be a massive issue.

Marcus: Mapping it back, that’s the point.

Paul: I do find it incredible that the Top Task thing works at all really. That you could present people with a list of seventy odd items and that they pick their top five. I suppose it’s almost an instinctive thing as much as anything else?

Gerry And this is where it’s so important to design your task lists in a language that is customer-centred. Because what happens is essentially it’s designed to basically deal with the problems of traditional surveys where people talk about things that they like and often the problem that you didn’t really get their true intent. It’s to really get to the gut. The list kind of goes blindly and out comes ‘download software, download…’ as it’s already in your brain. So people don’t look at this list and discover things. It’s more like some more psychologically resonate with some things that you already care about in the process and it’s designed to get the ‘do as I do, not as I say’. To go away from that problem from what people say versus what people do. The overloading design is exactly as you say, Paul. To get deep into that gut instinct. It’s unbelievable.

Here’s another thing.

The more complex the world becomes, like if you go into quantum physics and stuff like that, the more counter-intuitive it becomes.


Paul: That is true actually, I will give you that.

Gerry Often the things we think are a no-brainer are not such a… sometimes they are right, but sometimes we really get surprised.

Paul: I can imagine its because if you present somebody with a list of seventy odd items, they are not going to go through that list going ‘Oh yes, I’d quite like that’ and ‘Oh that might be quite useful’. Instead they are having to go from the premise of ‘I want to do this, is it in the list?’ ‘Cause that is what often happens.

If you say to a user ‘Would you like X feature?’ They’ll go to themselves, ‘Oh yes, that will be quite nice to have’. And when you go to the effort of building it, nobody actually uses it because it was just a ‘nice to have’.

While this is taking it from the other point of view. It’s saying ‘Ok, tell us what you want, and it will be in this list somewhere, just go find it’. I guess?

Gerry That’s it Paul. If we have a vote like at the top the number one task might get two and a half thousand votes, and the bottom task might get ten votes. If there were a hundred tasks in the list, the top five—and this is again whether we do this in Brazil or whether we do it in Iceland—there are similar patterns. So if we had a hundred tasks in the list, the top five on average will get as much of the vote as the bottom fifty.

Paul: Yeah. It’s almost the 80/20 rule isn’t it?

Gerry It’s more extreme even. The top five tasks typically get between 20–25% of the vote. Then it begins to flatten out. So you get this small set, and this is whether it’s in Health, buying a car, IKEA, BBC, all sorts of different environments. There’s this relatively small….

And all we’re saying to the client is that ‘This is a set of really important stuff. Shouldn’t this really be working well? Shouldn’t we be making sure that this sort of stuff which has huge demand is really smooth and working really well?’

So we don’t necessarily say ‘Get rid of these Tiny Tasks’. That kind of almost becomes a side-effect. We’d rather focus the organisation and say ‘Well here’s this stuff that’s so important to your customer, let’s make sure its working really, really well.’

Paul: Yeah, yeah, sure. Absolutely.

Can we go back to what we were talking about earlier in terms of marketers and designers and stuff?

I’m really interested to know what you see the role of design being in the modern web?

Because there is a balance. There seems to be these two extremes. You’ve got the people who are doing design for design’s sake. You know, it’s looking pretty, looks great in their portfolio, it massages the ego of the client etc. And there you’ve got Jakob Nielson with this site he designed in 1998 that he’s never changing.

And there’s got to be a balance somewhere in between and I am interested in where you see that balance lying?

Gerry And you’re 100% right Paul. It’s how we define design. If we define design in a holistic way that it’s as much how you design the search engine and the search engine results and the booking process and the form. If we take all that in, then design is absolutely central because if you get sometimes small little tweaks or changes or movements or changing the size of a box or shifting it to a certain position can have massive impacts on the behaviour. So the art of designing the entire environment is absolutely central. The mobile experience, the using of it, the understanding of it, understanding all those things and the context… these, to me, and choosing the right words is design. It’s all much more rigorous. I think the whole process, the model of, I would be more interested in, whereas you touched on a beta world – continuous improvement based on evidence. Now whatever you want to call that, design, whatever, that’s the world.

So the world of people who are in a beta model of getting something that it’s always beta in a way that its rapidly evolving based on evidence of behaviour so you are constantly coming up with a hypothesis and you are testing it and refining it and testing it and refining it. To me, that’s design in the broadest sense of the word.

So those skills to create the optimal environment that facilitates the person in the smoothest most elegant possible way to move through a space, a virtual space and book their flight or check up if they have cancer or not, or do all sorts of things or figure out how to board. Like recently has set up an appointment their family member who is in prison, whoever that may be… that’s our world and that’s design.

Paul: Isn’t that somewhat dismissive of the kind of aesthetic, emotional elements of design? To take that to its extreme example, if you look at the slot machine in Vegas or whatever, if you had your way and other usability specialists—probably myself included—would we not basically design it with just one big button on it that you just press and that’s it and you either win or you use? ‘Cause that’s the simplest most user friendly approach to it.

Isn’t there actually an element where design enhances the experience, creates an emotional response from you?

Should a product like mailchimp actually get rid of all that stupid monkey and just have a form you fill in? Do you see what I am getting at?

Gerry I know. But let’s go to those… ‘cause there’s the tasks, and there’s the business needs. And they have to of course, interlink. That’s the perfect world. So if you design a really, really simple slot machine, you’d probably make a lot less money from it. So follow the money!


Paul: Oh a man after my own heart!

Gerry But of course there is the other side and I try and avoid it and we have to make a living and whatever, but marketing has come out of it and marketing and advertising has been founded in many ways on manipulation and fooling people in a lot of areas. And that’s Coca-cola, that’s Pepsi, that’s all these things. I heard a marketer say to me once ‘When I’m really happy is when they say “I’m gonna buy this brand and I don’t even know why!” That’s when it’s really working’. There’s a whole culture and we’re coming out and society is like… they’ve used those Pavlov dogs’ association techniques. That’s where marketing and advertising grew out of psychology schools in the twentieth century and a lot of them were kicked out of universities and a lot of them set up advertising agencies.

It’s based on the precept that people are emotional fools. If we cut to the chase we can manipulate people if we find their hidden triggers and get them to want things. The sexy woman in front of the car… that worked in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and gradually a lot of these techniques are becoming less and less useful because we’ve used them so many times. It’s like antibiotics, the consumer’s becoming more and more immune to this type of stuff.

Now, that is different from aesthetics, for sure. But aesthetics has often been used for that emotional stuff. A lot of times when marketers say emotional, what unfortunately they mean is emotional manipulation of the customer. I think aesthetics has been very much unfortunately hijacked by the emotional manipulators in a lot of situations.

Do you ever see a car ad of a car in traffic?


Ever fucking car – the streets are always empty. The streets of Paris are empty when they are driving their new car. Or they are driving across a shimmering desert. That’s the dream. That’s the illusion and we buy that. And it works ok.

And we need to separate that. Between something that is beautiful, and of course Apple is beautiful and of course we want stuff is beautiful to feel and… isn’t that the perfect world where it’s not seeking to trick us, but it’s making our day more… we enjoy it. We get what we need done but it’s enjoyable. And I think that’s a perfect world.

Unfortunately a lot of that branding and beauty has been hijacked by the trickster-ism that has been so dominate in marketing and advertising for the last fifty or sixty years.

Paul: Yeah. I totally agree.

There’s one question I want to finish up with. Which is that I know a lot of people listening to this and they will be thinking ‘Yeah, I completely agree with this, I can see where you are coming from but my boss or my manager is so embedded in that old school way of thinking of just shoving content online, covering every eventuality, making it look pretty and marketing the hell out of it’.

Where do you start to kind of build a case for change, of approaching things differently?

Gerry Well I think it’s like I just said Paul, you build a case and at the very most basic level do testing, do every testing. Say ‘Look here we’ve got a 2% conversion rate and if we do it this way we get a 6% conversion rate’. I think its finding places where we can show. Bring the evidence, drop your opinion – bring the evidence.

A lot of times you still won’t succeed. I think a lot of senior marketing people park their brain at the door and then they plug the advertising agency brain in. Sometimes I think the ad agencies must have pictures on senior managers or something on them that is… it’s like they can’t think without the ad agency!

And you have to say to the ad agency – fair play to you! You’ve so got senior marketing people in your pocket it’s extraordinary. But you know what? You’ll both go down the tubes together.

Paul: Yeah. I mean there is… I like that you know. Don’t tell, show. Do those little test cases, try stuff out and show that there is a different way. But I agree, sometimes you are fighting a losing battle, sometimes you do need to go and find another company that thinks about things in a different way.

Oh Gerry it’s a pleasure to have someone as bitter and twisted as me on the show! It’s been absolutely wonderful, thank you for coming on and we will get you back again in the future again no doubt.

Gerry And Paul, we’re optimists at heart.


Paul: Are we really?


Paul: Thank you very much Gerry, great to talk to you.

Marcus: Thanks Gerry.

Gerry Thank you Marcus, see you now, bye Paul.


Paul: So there’s Gerry. What a star.

Marcus: There’s not an awful lot you can say after that is there?

Paul: No… he just kind of leaves you a little punch-drunk, doesn’t he really? But such a cool guy, definitely worth following. His blog, he channels my mind. Whenever I read his, yeah, I actually think I am going to do myself an injury with his blog. Because I sit there and I’m nodding so hard one day either my head’s going to fall off or I’m going to pull a muscle in my neck or some bad thing is going to happen. ‘Cause he’s just so spot on all the time. And very funny too.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: Talking of funny!

Marcus: Haha, nothing to do with me.

Paul: Nope, it’s Marcus’s joke time.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: But Awwwards are sponsoring it and they are at least interesting.

Marcus: Yes they are, and they are lovely ‘cause I’m pretty sure we didn’t say lovely things last time, or Leigh didn’t say…

Paul: It was Leigh. He didn’t not say lovely things, he was just very rude about the whole idea of having a sponsor on the show.

Marcus: He was, yes.

Paul: And I’ve done a lot of work with Awwwards over the years and they are a really nice bunch of people which is always great isn’t it.

The thing we want to talk about this week… you remember last time I said how I turned down a trip to Barcelona with them for their event, see. It’s not just, because obviously they do awards (clue’s in the name) but they also do a conference around it. It’s on the 24th and 25th February in Barcelona, and if you can get there I think it’s going to be a really good one. It’s their second annual conference and prize giving. So it’s a two day event, and its one track. I love one track events. I hate having to have a choice. That’s what I hated most about South Buy most of all.

Marcus: And when it got up to about twenty tracks, well, you just need to hit the bar.

Paul: Yeah exactly. You end up with choice paralysis I think the word is. But even if there is two it’s so frustrating as you can guarantee that the two talks you want to see are on at the same time on two separate tracks. And also to be honest, I think the more tracks there are, the more they tend to pad the line up a bit.

So.. two day event, one track that’s got speakers from Spotify, Adobe, it’s got Bruce Lawson who is just an amazing speaker from Opera who are also sponsoring the show, but that’s another thing. And they’ve got loads of people coming from all over the world – thirty countries I think they are going to have represented. So I think it’s going to be a real European melting pot vibe thing going on.

And it’s in Barcelona!

Marcus: Is Bruce on the show next week?

Paul: I don’t know. Is it next week?

Marcus: Might be.

Paul: See now again, I was supposed to check this before we started, wasn’t I?

Marcus: Have you been following his recent tweets?

Paul: No…?

Marcus: He’s in Thailand at the moment.

Paul: Oh yeah, ‘cause his wife is Thai-land-ese?

Marcus: Oh, he’s in Cambodia. And he’s sending out pictures of stuff and making out he’s having a bad time.

Paul: Ahh. It’s a hard life.

Marcus: He’s so not having a bad time.

Paul: No. He’s actually not on next week’s show, he’s on the show a week after. It’s Andy – SEO Andy on next week. We’re talking about SEO, so that’s always good.

But Bruce, yeah, Bruce is amazing and Bruce is going to be at Awwwards. To find out more about Awwwards go to – see what they did there?

Marcus: A-www-ards.

Paul: I know. Impressive isn’t it?


Paul: I just think, that’s the best thing about them. The witty pun, play on words they did. If you want to know more about the conference mind though, that will take you to the home page. The conference is available on their website as well. You just need to click through to it. But it looks a really good one. If you get to go to it I’ll hate you forever.

Marcus: Hmmm.

Paul: Joke.

Marcus: But I love Barcelona.

Paul: I know.

Marcus: Haven’t been for a couple of years.

Paul: I say I know… I don’t know. I’ve never been there!

Marcus: Huh? Shocking! It’s not far and you can get there really cheaply and stay really cheaply.

Paul: Well I could have stayed very cheaply indeed ‘cause somebody would have paid me to go. What was I thinking?!

Marcus: I don’t know. What were you thinking?

Paul: I’m an idiot.

Marcus: It’s fabulous, go!

Paul: Anyway, tell me a joke. I think that would be good.

Marcus: I was having a little ferret around for jokes and I came across this little gem from Rob Green who is at the University of Northern Iowa.

Paul: Oh ok.

Marcus: What’s the difference between an oral thermometer and a rectal thermometer?

Paul: See now, this.. umm… ahh.


Paul: What is the difference, Marcus, beyond the blindingly obvious?

Marcus: The taste.

Paul: Ohh no! No!

Marcus: Ahh well, you know, sometimes you have to push it past the boundaries a little.

Paul: So we’ve just associated Awwwards with rectal thermometers?

Marcus: It’s not my joke. Blame Rob!


Paul: You’ve put me in a very difficult position Marcus.

Marcus: Really?

Paul: No, not really.

Alright, so that’s this week’s show. So as we’ve already said SEO Andy—Andy Kinsley—I think is his proper name is on next week, talking about Politics?

Marcus: Is he?

Paul: Well he does, very, very briefly. He’s a Labour Councillor.

Marcus: Oh yeah. We did these interviews a while back and I forget.

Paul: See? Memory of an old man.

Marcus: Yes. True.


Paul: Ok. So that wraps up this week’s show. Please join us again next week for what I think will be a really interesting session actually. If you have certain opinions about SEO as I do, then I think you will find it a very enlightening addition to the podcast.


Marcus: Bye.