All about Task Analysis

Task analysis is a critical part of any design project and one that is all too often skipped in favor of other seemingly more interesting actions. Yet, it is an essential part of understanding the user and the existing problem to be solved. Breaking down a larger task into its constituent actions allows us to view each piece separately, and forces the designer to think of the entirely of a process as well as the order in which each action occurs.

What is Task Analysis?

Usability.gov defines a task analysis as:

the process of learning about ordinary users by observing them in action to understand in detail how they perform their tasks and achieve their intended goals. Tasks analysis helps identify the tasks that your website and applications must support and can also help you refine or re-define your site’s navigation or search by determining the appropriate content scope.

In order to design a system to accommodate user needs, it is essential to first understand what tasks will be performed. Because tasks involving mobile devices involve an interaction with objects such as icons, menus, buttons, and chat windows, the tasks and the requisite objects must both be included within our design considerations. The results from a thorough task analysis can be used to drive design decisions and build predictive task performance models.

Why do we do it?

Using a task analysis helps a designer to avoid the mistake of automating the frustrations that already exist or repeating past mistakes. It gets you to the bottom of what the user will want to do and the simplest, most effective way of doing that. One of the key challenges when conducting task analysis is to let go of what you already think you know and allow the user’s actions to guide the process instead.

More About Processes

A task analysis can be performed on virtually any process, whether it be highly technical and complicated, or simple and mundane, containing few steps. As well, a process need not be a rigid set of steps that remain static. Experts in task analysis can distinguish steps that might be ordered differently, or processes that might be completely reordered or streamlined.

In any case, it is an excellent way to ascertain the logical order of a process, and to situate the process within the larger framework of a lifecycle. (More on life cycles in another post.)

One Example

The following is an example of a task analysis mapping for painting a room.

Step 1: Identify the Problem

The family decides they have had enough of living in a dingy, dirty apartment.

They don’t know exactly what to do about it yet, but they know they have had enough, and need to figure out a solution.

Step 2: Determine a solution

Since moving is out of the question at the moment, our subject decides he will repaint the walls.

Step 3: Research Some Options

Our subject decides to scour the internet for ideas about how to repaint. He learns all about different types of paint, and how to repair nail holes in the wall. Also, he studies up on YouTube to learn more about how to paint a room (he is a true novice).

Step 4: Consult family

Since our subject is not the only person living in the house, he resolves to consult his family about which options they like.

Step 5: Pick Colors

Armed with input from the others, our subject picks out a color palette, and chooses a main color and a trim color for the room to be painted. (He is starting to get excited!)

Step 6: Purchase Paint and Other Materials

Our subject heads to the paint store, and purchases the paint, brushes, masking tape, and additional equipment and materials needed to paint the room. Loading everything into his car, he heads back home.

Step 7: Paint the Room

He preps the room and begins to paint, and quickly makes progress in transforming his space. He notices that his family members do not seem interested in helping (once they see that it isn’t easy work!)

Step 8: Kick Back and Relax

Once the room is finished being painted, and the space has been cleaned up afterward, he relaxes and puts his feet up, enjoying the fresh new look of the room.

Reflection on the Process

One important point to make about this example is that both our subject and we the researchers presume that the problem is self evident. We have not truly attempted to investigate what the problem truly was. He decides the room is inadequate, but it could actually be due to the walls being dirty, or the room feeling too cluttered.

Perhaps he is solving the wrong problem by painting. By presuming he got it right, and mapping this without further inquiry, we might end up solving the wrong problem altogether. Perhaps there are several existing problems. If we investigate all of them, we can rank them and maybe address the most important one, or prioritize solutions for all of them.

This somewhat simple task, however, is intended to be an illustration of how a task analysis occurs. There is of course greater depth imbued in each of these steps, but this simply maps the existing process and is the jumping off point for the user researcher’s work to really begin.

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