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What is task analysis?

Last updated

28 February 2023

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Every business and organization should understand the needs and challenges of its customers, members, or users. Task analysis allows you to learn about users by observing their behavior. The process can be applied to many types of actions, such as tracking visitor behavior on websites, using a smartphone app, or completing a specific action such as filling out a form or survey.

In this article, we'll look at exactly what task analysis is, why it's so valuable, and provide some examples of how it is used.

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What is task analysis?

Task analysis is learning about users by observing their actions. It entails breaking larger tasks into smaller ones so you can track the specific steps users take to complete a task.

Task analysis can be useful in areas such as the following:

  • Website users signing up for a mailing list or free trial. Track what steps visitors typically take, such as where they find your site and how many pages they visit before taking action. You'd also track the behavior of visitors who leave without completing the task.

  • Teaching children to read. For example, a task analysis for second-graders may identify steps such as matching letters to sounds, breaking longer words into smaller chunks, and teaching common suffixes such as "ing" and "ies." 

  • Identifying the steps taken by autistic people to complete everyday tasks. The Indiana Resource Center for Autism gives examples of washing hands and putting on a coat. Such tasks can be challenging for people on the autistic spectrum, making it helpful to break them down into smaller discrete steps.  

  • Designing a product. By interviewing and observing people using digital products, you can identify opportunities to build or improve useful features. For example, if you are developing a photo editing app, you might identify steps that users take, such as uploading a photo, making edits, and then posting the photo to social media. 

Benefits of task analysis

There are several benefits to using task analysis for understanding user behavior:

  • Simplifies long and complex tasks

  • Allows for the introduction of new tasks

  • Reduces mistakes and improves efficiency

  • Develops a customized approach

Types of task analysis

There are two main categories of task analysis, cognitive and hierarchical.

Cognitive task analysis

Cognitive task analysis, also known as procedural task analysis, is concerned with understanding the steps needed to complete a task or solve a problem. It is visualized as a linear diagram, such as a flowchart. This is used for fairly simple tasks that can be performed sequentially.

Hierarchical task analysis

Hierarchical task analysis identifies a hierarchy of goals or processes. This is visualized as a top-to-bottom process, where the user needs top-level knowledge to proceed to subsequent tasks. A hierarchical task analysis is top-to-bottom, as in Google's example following the user journey of a student completing a class assignment.

What is the difference between cognitive and hierarchical task analysis?

There are a few differences between cognitive and hierarchical task analysis. While cognitive task analysis is concerned with the user experience when performing tasks, hierarchical task analysis looks at how each part of a system relates to the whole.

When to use task analysis

A task analysis is useful for any project where you need to know as much as possible about the user experience. To be helpful, you need to perform a task analysis early in the process before you invest too much time or money into features or processes you'll need to change later.

You can take what you learn from task analysis and apply it to other user design processes such as website design, prototyping, wireframing, and usability testing.

How to conduct a task analysis

There are several steps involved in conducting a task analysis.

  1. Identify one major goal (the task) you want to learn about. One challenge is knowing what steps to include. If you are studying users performing a task on your website, do you want to start the analysis when they actually land on your site or earlier? You may also want to know how they got there, such as by searching on Google.

  2. Break the main task into smaller subtasks. "Going to the store" might be separated into getting dressed, getting your wallet, leaving the house, walking or driving to the store. You can decide which sub-tasks are meaningful enough to include.

  3. Draw a diagram to visualize the process. A diagram makes it easier to understand the process.

  4. Write down a list of the steps to accompany the diagram to make it more useful to those who were not familiar with the tasks you analyzed.

  5. Share and validate the results with your team to get feedback on whether your description of the tasks and subtasks, as well as the diagram, are clear and consistent.

Task analysis in UX

One of the most valuable uses of task analysis is for improving user experience (UX). The entire goal of UX is to identify and overcome user problems and challenges. Task analysis can be helpful in a number of ways.

  • Identify the steps users take when using a product. Can some of the steps be simplified or eliminated?

  • Finding areas in the process that users find difficult or frustrating. For example, if many users abandon a task at a certain stage, you'll want to introduce changes that improve the completion rate.

  • Hierarchical analysis reveals what users need to know to get from one step to the next. If there are gaps (i.e., not all users have the expertise to complete the steps), they should be filled.

Task analysis is a valuable tool for developers and project managers

Task analysis is a process that can improve the quality of training, software, product prototypes, website design, and many other areas. By helping you identify user experience, you can make improvements and solve problems. It's a tool that you can continually refine as you observe results.

By consistently applying the most appropriate kind of task analysis (e.g., cognitive or hierarchical), you can make consistent improvements to your products and processes. Task analysis is valuable for the entire product team, including product managers, UX designers, and developers.

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