Image - What task-based intranet navigation isn't

Understanding what “task-based intranet navigation” really means

In a nutshell: “Task-based intranet navigation” structures can be great for intranet usability, but I’ve noticed some confusion about what the phrase means. “Task-based navigation” isn’t about “How do I?” headings and using verbs, but about how to organize content from a user perspective. Task-based navigation is especially well understood in contrast to a structure based on the org chart.

Scratching an itch…

I’ve had this niggle in the back of my mind for a while now around the term “task based navigation.” In various contexts I’ve heard intranet teams use the phrase in ways that seem a little off the mark. I sense a little confusion about what the term means and I hope this post helps to clarify.

“Task-based” navigation doesn’t refer to headings that start with “How do I?”

I started wanting to write this article after seeing a number of intranet teams present their intranets and explain “How do I?” lists of links as “task-based navigation.”

While that action-oriented headline can effectively direct intranet users to complete specific tasks, it’s not quite what user experience designers and information architects mean by “task-based navigation.”

It can be very helpful when landing pages include “How do I?” drop-down lists or link lists. Those give employees a clear sense of action and instruction.

Image - Examples of How Do I? lists

But “task-based navigation” has a different, broader meaning that’s especially important for intranets.

It is in contrast to designing the intranet navigation around org structure or content types

“Task-based navigation” for intranets is best understood in direct contrast to other navigation paradigms. Many of us intranet nerds have fought the good fight against global intranet site navigation structures based on the org structure.

You know how it goes – The HR department has a tab in the global navigation, and then the IT department and Finance and Facilities each want departmental representation in the global navigation. And then other teams too. This approach is far from strategic and tends to deliver poor user experience.

Two key weaknesses of a navigation based on organizational structure:

  1. Org structures change, constantly, therefore a site navigation based on org structure will basically always be out-of-date or changing.
  2. It’s poor usability that adds cognitive load because it forces users to already know who owns the content in order to get to it.

Organizing content by type is useful, but may not be a good primary navigation structure

Another common pattern for intranet navigation structures is to organize content based on type. For example, this often takes the form of putting all policies in one section named “Policies” and all forms in another section named “Forms.” And perhaps those sections go under a section named “Resources.” (Yes, I saw that once.)

Having those A-Z resources can be very helpful. But that may be a poor choice for the primary navigation structure.

“Task-based navigation” aims for durable and intuitive content groupings based on similar tasks

In contrast to site navigation structures based on organizational structure or content types, “task-based navigation” organizes content into groupings based on similar activities.

Task-based navigation structures use plain language words rather than company jargon. They provide clear paths to content, grouping similar material irrespective of which department or team is responsible for the content.

5 characteristics of task-based navigation:

  1. Clear, everyday language in the navigation
  2. Content groupings based on similar or related tasks
  3. An understanding of the tasks behind content
  4. Navigation & landing page optimization for top tasks
  5. Durable navigation structures that can last a long time, despite changes in organizational structure or changes to organizational processes

An example of task-based intranet navigation

This is what a simplified task-based intranet navigation structure could look like. This is not a comprehensive navigation structure, but indicates the way that plain English and task-based organization can work.

The drop-down for “Pay, time & benefits” shows a secondary level of navigation based on grouping related tasks.

Image - Example of task-based intranet navigation

This example is far from perfect. There are SO many ways to make it more comprehensive and for the sub-navigation to focus on key moments or clearer groupings. But it does demonstrate a move away from organizing the site by department or content type.

Top-level task-based navigation likely won’t use action language

Task-based navigation structures don’t necessarily use action-based words like “Submit” and “Review” and Fill out.” Rather, they use clear language that describes the groupings of content beneath them and that resonates with the tasks at hand.

This gets at that common misconception, that having a “How do I?” section equates to using task-based navigation.

The “task-based” part of “task-based navigation” is more about how the content is organized than using task-based language in the navigation itself.

Good navigational language provides clear way-finding and an “information scent” that helps users easily understand the right direction to take. It gives them confidence that they’re clicking down the right path.

Action language comes into play at more granular levels of navigation, where a page of content is designed around very specific tasks.

In the intranet global navigation example above, it would be very hard to make the “Pay, time & benefits” section use action language and still fit within the navigation. Even the secondary navigation under “Pay, time & benefits” is still too high-level to include action-oriented language.

Site navigation and on-page navigation are different, and need to work together

Task-based navigation often refers to the site navigation – page titles and how they fit together at each level of the site. But your navigation also includes your intranet’s on-page content.

Content headings and lists of links on pages also count as navigation: They provide way-finding for employees, getting them to where they need to go.

On-page navigation can be a mix of action language and nouns

While the site navigation may not use action words, headings and lists on landing pages and content pages can include action-oriented language. However, that language doesn’t need to be the default.

Again, task-based navigation is about how content is organized more than the language in the navigation.

Example of mixed language for a content list:

Here is an example of what an on-page list of links could look like, which includes both action terms and plain old nouns:

  • Request paid leave
  • Holiday calendar
  • View PTO balance
  • PTO accrual policy
  • Parental leave policy

This is task-based in that all the content for related tasks is linked to from the same place, probably in a very relevant context. The fact that some of the links use action language is more about writing good links than anything else.

Understand tasks to unlock content value & user experience insights

Underlying all this wonky “navigation” talk is the need to incorporate task thinking into content management. That’s truly what matters.

As Gerry McGovern, my favorite Iriish web and intranet usability expert, says: “Information is a task.”