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Task Orientation

Separating your content by type isn't always sufficient to make your information address the needs of your users. To help users accomplish real-world goals by using your products, you must create task-oriented topics. For example, the users of your products might want to accomplish the following real-world goals:

  • Processing loan applications for a bank
  • Reducing power costs by installing solar panels on rooftops
  • Increasing revenues by making business processes more efficient
  • Making electronic medical records available to physicians
  • Manufacturing audio components for cars
  • Setting up enterprise email systems so that employees can be more productive

The job of the technical writer, editor, and information architect is to create information for products that help users accomplish these goals. The goal is not simply to describe how the product works.

To create effective task-oriented information, follow these guidelines:

  • Focus on the goals of the user, not the way the product works.
  • Write from the user's point of view and write in active voice.
  • Target the appropriate audience.
  • Tell users why they need or should perform the task.
  • Break up large or complex tasks into shorter subtasks and organize task topics in logical order.
  • Don't bury a task in conceptual or reference information.

By applying the principles of task-oriented writing to your information, you can write your topics according to what tasks users perform rather than by the way the product works or by the way it's designed.

For more information about task-oriented writing, see "Task Orientation" in Developing Quality Technical Information by Hargis et al.

Task Analysis

When human factors engineers design new products, they do a task analysis so that they can understand the goals of their users and how those users want to use the product. Technical writers can also do a task analysis to understand how users work with the product. A task analysis can help you create effective task-oriented information.

During a task analysis, you need to find as much information as you can about how users currently work or intend to work with your product. A thorough task analysis can provide the following information:

  • What task topics to write
  • How much supporting reference and conceptual information to provide

Do a task analysis at the beginning of the project. For example, you might do a task analysis when you create information for a new product, when you reorganize a set of information, or when you model the information for a new feature, service, or technology.

Table 1.2 shows a task analysis of how to make an espresso drink:

Table 1.2. Task Analysis of How to Make Espresso Drinks




What is the goal?

To make an espresso drink.

State the ultimate goal of the user; don't describe how the product works.

What tasks does the user need to perform to accomplish the goal?

  • Prepare the beans.
  • Load the filter.
  • Configure the espresso machine.
  • Add water.
  • Prepare the milk.
  • Turn on the espresso machine.

Don't worry about order yet. Just brainstorm all possible tasks.

What are the mental and physical steps involved in each task?

Mental: Decide what kind of coffee to make.

Physical: Grind beans, steam milk, and load filter.

Most tasks require mental and physical steps.

Who performs the task?

Audience: Coffee drinkers who like strong coffee drinks

Experience: Advanced

Describe users in as much detail as possible.

When and under what conditions is the task performed?

Requirements: Espresso machine must be configured and running; espresso drink ingredients must be available.

Limitations: User must know how to create espresso drinks.

Environment: Users usually make coffee in the morning and are probably sleepy.

Describe prerequisites, limitations, or restrictions to do the task.

What are potential distractions to accomplishing the goal?

Troubleshooting: Broken power source or bean grinding problem.

Alternative path: Deciding to make brewed coffee rather than an espresso drink.

Exception path: Missing ingredients.

Consider errors or problems that users might encounter.

An exception path describes the situation when something goes wrong in the process that prevents users from completing of the task.

What does the user need to know about the task?

Duration: 3 minutes if the coffee beans are ground; 8 minutes if the coffee beans are not ground.

Complexity: Easy for advanced users; medium to difficult for users making espresso drinks for the first or second time.

Frequency: Daily.

This information might impact the type of content that you include in the procedure or how you structure the task topic.

What is the sequence of tasks or steps?

Prerequisites: Install and configure espresso machine.

  1. Turn on the espresso machine.
  2. Prepare the beans:
    1. Select the coffee beans.
    2. Grind the beans to fine or extra fine.
  3. Load the ingredients:
    1. Load the ground beans.
    2. Add the water.
  4. Allow the ground coffee to brew.
  5. Pour the espresso into a cup.
  6. Optional: Add sugar or other ingredients.

Organize the tasks or steps in the proper order.

What is the expected result?

Make a perfectly crafted espresso drink.

State the results that users will expect to see or accomplish.

The result of the analysis is that you have the following information:

  • An understanding of what tasks users must complete to achieve a goal.
  • An outline of what steps it takes to perform a task. Use this outline to create your DITA topics.

Although a task analysis might seem time consuming, the effort can likely save you time over the entire release cycle of your product. Use the task analysis form that appears at the end of this chapter to do an analysis for your product, service, or technology.

You can use professional modeling tools to do a task analysis, such as UML applications or the DITA-aware IBM Information Architecture Workbench. You can also use a spreadsheet or pen and paper to track the analysis questions and responses.

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