Qualitative usability studies are dependent on a few key pieces: a design to test, a participant to test it, and (often) a moderator to run the session. The other essential element: the tasks.

A task needs to accurately and adequately reflect the researcher’s goal, as well as provide clear instructions about what participants need to do. Good tasks are essential to having a usability study that results in accurate and actionable findings.

Writing tasks for a usability test is not easy. As any experienced usability researcher can tell you, how the task is written directly impacts the success of the study. If you give study participants bad instructions, you can bias them and completely change the outcome of the study. At best, you won’t learn that much, and the study won’t reflect real-world use very well. At worst, your “findings” will be directly misleading and cause you to make the product worse, rather than better.

After you’ve written your tasks, take another pass through them, looking for common mistakes that can impact the value or depth of your findings, or the well-being of your participant.

1. Telling Users Where to Go

Do words from the interface appear in your task? If so, you’re priming your participants and testing their reading comprehension and ability to find matching words, rather than your labels and navigation. Rewrite the task to remove any words that appear in your interface, so you give yourself a fair chance to see if users can find their way around the site.

Task goal: Use the location finder tool (labeled Find a Branch)

Leading user task: Find a branch near you and see when it is open tomorrow.

Improvement: When is the bank location that’s most convenient to you open tomorrow?

2. Telling Users What to Do

As part of a task, users may need to go through several steps, such as registering for the site, installing software, or downloading a document. Take the opportunity to gather more about the process by not warning study participants about what they will need to do. When your task includes prompts to register, install, or download, you may miss out on the valuable feedback that users might offer when encountering that step in the process. For example, participants may be surprised or annoyed by an additional or unexpected step.

Task goal: Find the price for consulting services

Overly-structured task: Locate information about consulting services, provide details about yourself and your company, and set up a time to talk to a consultant about pricing.

Improvement: Find out how much a consulting project costs.

3. Creating Out-of-Date Tasks

Often, we write tasks only a few days before the usability study is scheduled. Even so, consider the timeliness of your tasks. If your task includes a future event, make sure that event is going to still be in the future during testing. If the task is to find a flight leaving February 20, don’t run that test on February 22. A task about the latest news on a site should be updated the day before or the day of testing to include current content. Be cautious if tasks include information that is typically relevant or updated only in specific months or seasons. Users may think the site has out-of-date information or that the tasks aren’t realistic.

Task goal: Find sports teams’ scores (Assume testing is taking place in February. In the United States, baseball is played from April to October. Hockey is played October through April.)

Outdated task: Find out how the Cubs did in their last baseball game.

Improvement: Find out how the Blackhawks did in their last hockey game.

4. Making Tasks Too Simple

If you want to know if people can effectively use charts, graphs, or information on the site, don’t just test if they can navigate to it. Create tasks that make study participants work a bit for the information. Your goal isn’t to make tasks unnecessarily complex, but to give users a realistic task that requires processing, rather than just locating information.

Task goal: Find and use player statistics (Points Per Game is the first item listed in player statistics, sorted from highest to lowest)

Too-easy task: Who scored the most points, averaged across games, in the league?

Improvement: Who scored more points, averaged across games, during the season: Russell Westbrook or LeBron James?

5. Creating an Elaborate Scenario

Some tasks may benefit from a small scenario to give the activity some context. A short description may help study participants understand the reason for such a task or clarify the exact information you would like them to find. You may suggest a genre of music that the participant should investigate, a reason for looking for particular information, or provide a name and address for a purchase. For instance, you may include a detail such as when a gift recipient’s birthday is, to see if users can find a shipping option that will ensure a gift is delivered on time.

Scenarios can be helpful, but be cautious when using them. They are not always necessary. They may add complexity to a task that could be straightforward. They can increase the number of details users must read through and remember. Sometimes such scenarios are used to justify an unusual or abnormal activity. If it takes a long story to explain why a user would want to do an activity, it’s likely not a realistic task to test.

Task goal: Find and use nutritional guidance information

Unnecessary backstory: You are helping babysit your friend’s 3-year-old boy for a week and want to know more about healthy diets for kids. Find out how much grain should be in his diet.

Improvement: Find out how much grain should be in a 3-year-old’s diet.

6. Writing an Ad, not a Task

Don’t let marketing language or internal lingo sneak into tasks. Make sure your tasks don’t include marketing phrases like “exciting new feature,” business phrases like “thinking outside the box,” or mysterious corporate acronyms. Use user-centric language, not maker-centric language. For specialized audiences, it may make sense to use technical terms or audience-specific language, but that is the exception, rather than the rule.

Task goal: Use the new social sharing feature

Promotional wording: Check out the exciting new feature that lets you quickly and easily share articles with colleagues.

Improvement: Send an article to a colleague.

7. Risking an Emotional Reaction

While writing a task that revolves around someone’s mother may seem harmless, you never know the specific circumstances of your study participants. Mentioning a specific relationship in a task may add unnecessary emotion to the user test. What if the participant has a difficult relationship with the person you’re referencing, or that person has passed away? Don’t risk upsetting a user and derailing a task or even an entire session. Part of the responsibility of running a usability test is to ensure the well-being of your participants. Stick to harmless and vague relationships instead – friend, colleague, a friend’s child.

Task Goal: See how participants shop for gifts.

Potentially upsetting task: Mother’s Day is coming up. Find a bouquet to send your mother.

Improvement: Send your friend flowers to celebrate her new job.

8. Trying to Be Funny

Don’t joke, use famous names in tasks, or otherwise try to lighten the mood. Doing so can backfire and make some participants feel awkward or, even worse, as though you are making fun of them. Even using gender-neutral names, such as telling the user to register as Kelly or Jesse, can be a distraction from the task.

Task Goal: Identify problems in the gift subscription checkout flow.

Distracting joke in task: Send a subscription to your friend for her birthday. Her name is Ima Customer and she lives at 826 Main Street in Tempe, Arizona, 85280.

Improvement: Send a subscription to your friend for her birthday. Her name is Jen Smith and she lives at 826 Main Street in Tempe, Arizona, 85280.

9. Offending the Participant

Avoid potentially offensive details in tasks. Societal issues, politics, health, religion, age, and money all have the possibility of offending a participant.

Task goal: Find and use information about exercise and calories.

Potentially offensive task: You need to lose a few pounds. See what types of exercise will help you lose the extra weight.

Improvement: See what types of exercise burn the most calories.

10. Asking Rather than Telling

While you want to be polite to your participants, don’t overdo it. Don’t ask participants “how would you” complete a task — unless you want them to talk you through what they theoretically would do on a site, rather than doing it. The point of usability testing is to see what users do, not to hear what they would do.

Task goal: Find the symptoms of the flu

Instructing the user to talk instead of perform: How would you find the symptoms of the flu?

Improvement: Find out what the symptoms of the flu are.

Tip: Start with the End Goal

Sometimes, with all the things you need to avoid in a task, it can feel like you’re writing a riddle that the participant needs to solve. It can be hard to avoid navigational labels, steps, stories, or marketing language in your tasks. This is why task writing is more of an art than a science.

If you find yourself struggling to write a task, consider the user’s end goal rather than the task’s end goal. Rather than focusing on the section or the feature you want to test, consider why people would use that section or feature. What would they ultimately try to accomplish?

To test your checkout process, give the user a task to buy something. To review your newsletter subscription process, ask the user to sign up to receive information via email. To see if a user can understand content, write a task with a question about the information contained in the content. Starting with the users’ end goal helps streamline task writing, and reviewing these common mistakes can finetune the tasks.

Learn more about task-writing in our Usability Testing course.