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UX Task Analysis: A Complete Guide + Example

UXtweak Team
•  30.06.2023
Today we’re going to talk about one of the most underestimated steps in creating a user-friendly product. Many people skip it, assuming they already know all the insights it can offer, which is a huge mistake. Learning how to do UX task analysis in the right way will make you dominate the market by designing cutting-edge solutions to provide your users with an effortless user experience. Moreover, it will help make the design process move faster and save on testing multiple design iterations.

It’s almost impossible to create an intuitive website without knowing your user’s goals and struggles along the way. But how do you find out what they are? Luckily, there is an effective way to do that — task analysis. By following this article, you will master task analysis and obtain the knowledge you need to design an efficient and user-centered product.   

Key Takeaways

➡️ Task analysis in UX means detailed mapping of how a user completes their goal using a digital product and of dependent system actions

📈 It is crucial when developing a new product or when updating an existing one

🎯 Understanding exactly how a user interacts with a system leads to design improvements, increased user satisfaction, and overall increased efficiency

🐝 To gather data for task analysis one may use methods such as interviews, contextual inquiry, task-based usability testing and more

✅ The output of a UX task analysis is most often a task analysis diagram

Table of Contents:

What is task analysis?

Task analysis is, simply put, the understanding of a user’s task. It’s a combination of understanding the user, their task, and their environment. Performing a task analysis leaves a detailed understanding of the task sequence, its complexity, environmental conditions, tools, skills, and information the user needs to perform the task to achieve their goal.

It encompasses a broad range of techniques from observations of the user in their natural environment to documenting how the users perform their tasks in an existing system. A good task analysis leads to actionable insights into user processes. This information can be directly applied in designing efficient user flows that liberate users from unnecessary work and delegate said work to the system. 

What are the types of approaches to user task analysis

There are three approaches to task analysis, which can however be combined:

  1. Contextual 
  2. Cognitive
  3. Hierarchical 

UX task analysis approaches

Now, we will break down each approach in more detail.

Contextual task analysis

A central, key step in contextual task analysis is contextual observations/interviews. The idea is that analysts must observe and interview users in their real-life work context to understand their needs and “hot button” motivators.

Julie A. Jacko; professor, author of Human-Computer Interaction Handbook
Julie A. Jacko; professor, author of Human-Computer Interaction Handbook

Contextual analysis means obtaining a model of how a user completes a certain task, in their natural environment. This enables you to understand how the product will fit the user’s environment, actual needs, and other tools they already use.

For example, if you want to test the usability of an app for bike-sharing, you should test this with users outside, on the go. Nobody will be using this app from the comfort of their couch, on the contrary, one might expect it to be used under changeable outside light conditions or in a hurry This is a specific context within which the task analysis should be conducted.

To design products used in a distracting environment one should consider providing safeguards against unintentional errors, and including options to pick the task up again after a delay (Mayhew, 2007).

Contextual task analysis is indispensable in pinpointing novel business opportunities – “At which point can we design technology solutions that help the user do their task more efficiently?” It also helps design the product so that it can be seamlessly integrated into the user’s existing processes and it’s easy for new users to pick up.

Lastly, understanding how users already interact with existing tools helps design an interface that’s inherently familiar to the users.

Cognitive task analysis

Cognitive task analysis focuses on understanding the deeper mental processes such as decision-making, attention, memory, and judgment that a task involves. By studying users’ cognitive processes, UX researchers and designers can gain insights into how users understand, learn, and perform tasks within a given interface or system.

This technique can include UX methods such as think-aloud protocols, observational studies, user interviews, and usability testing.

Hierarchical task analysis

Hierarchical task analysis studies user behavior by breaking complex tasks down into smaller subtasks. This approach helps to gain more detailed and precise information into the process of users completing complex tasks as each step can be analyzed separately. 

Each subtask can be analyzed using either of the two methods described above or a combination of both methods. This detailed information can be later visualized in a form of a diagram that describes the steps taken to accomplish a certain larger goal.

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What is the main goal of Task Analysis in user research?

Task analysis is supposed to provide actionable insights into user processes which can be directly applied in designing efficient user flows that liberate users from unnecessary work and delegate said work to the system. It encompasses a range of techniques from observations of the users to documenting their performance.

When to do task analysis?

There are two use cases when task analysis is most beneficial:

  1. When developing a brand-new product
  2. When updating an existing system

Ideally done during all stages of the design process, task analysis is most useful at the beginning (Courage et al, 2007).

If you follow the Design Thinking process, incorporate it into the Empathize and Define stages. Doing task analysis at the beginning will ultimately save time and money during the later stages. Understanding how users work makes the design phase move much more quickly, it helps prioritize the features, and saves on testing, as the design will be more informed and fewer iterations will be needed.

However, task analysis can be just as successfully applied to updating an existing project and can still drive your updates to be more user-centric.

Preparing for a UX task analysis

The first step, of course, is to pick a specific task you want to analyze. Before starting the task analysis, decide on the scope and granularity – i.e. how much time you have, what user population you want to cover, how many types of tasks, and in how much detail you want to specify them.

Split your task into more specific tasks if needed, depending on the level of detail you decided.

For example, if you are designing a collaboration platform, you may be interested in a larger picture – understanding how work moves from person to person and the users’ general jobs. On the other hand, if your product is targeting single users who don’t interact, you may want to start with the target user’s main goals and sub-goals and move down to the breakdown of specific steps they take to achieve these goals. 

How to conduct a UX task analysis?

There are 2 main parts to a UX task analysis:

  1. Gather information about users
  2. Analyze the data

The output of a UX task analysis is a task-analysis flow diagram.

1. Task Analysis: Gathering information

The objective is to understand users’ goals, mental models, and tasks in their natural environment. Who are they? What information do they have and lack? What mental models do they have of the activities that your product covers? And most importantly – what are their goals?

These are some methods that are used:

  • Contextual analysis or contextual inquiry – If you have the time and resources, bring the research to users by conducting site visits. Observing the users in their natural environment will allow you to document their steps and decisions as they solve tasks. Supplement your observations by asking questions about their goals and reasoning.
  • Interviewing – Make the interview behavioral rather than attitudinal – get them to walk you through their process and explain their decisions. Ask them to show you the artifacts and tools they would normally use and let them walk you through how they would use them. Artifacts could be e.g. a calendar, notes, paper form – anything they already produce to help themselves in the task.
  • Recording user activities – This might be a user taking self-recorded notes in a diary study or with the help of a tracking software such as a session recording tool.
  • Focus group – A semi-structured discussion with multiple target users.  Moderate their discussion to reach a consensus on what the task steps look like, what kind of decisions they have to make along the way, and what kind of goals they are achieving.
  • Task-based user testing – If you are not developing a product from scratch, but rather updating an existing one, conduct task-based usability testing and observe how users complete the tasks in the existing system. You can do this in person or remotely with the help of a usability testing tool. Keep records of all user actions, such as page views, click paths, and actions like purchase or download.

💡Pro Tip

An informal task analysis is better than none. Oftentimes rigorous task analysis requires much time and effort so that one is tempted to let go of the idea completely. If interviewing, focus groups, user testing, and other techniques are unavailable to you, consider informal, unobtrusive observations of real users using a product - it will be more valuable than doing nothing.

2. Putting the Analysis into Task Analysis

A variety of tools can help you to make sense of your data: 

  • Affinity diagrams – If you are just starting generative research to prioritize features of a new product, use affinity diagrams mapping users’ needs, goals, and preferences. 
  • User Personas – To understand your target users, craft rich persona descriptions that contain user backgrounds, goals, needs, knowledge, and environment information. 
  • Users Scenarios – Moving closer to the task itself, you can write user scenarios  – short stories starting with the user’s situation and describing the steps, tools, and artifacts the user uses to arrive at a happy ending. However, the ultimate method in hierarchical task analysis is the diagrams.

The result of a UX task analysis is most often a flow diagram.

Flow diagrams

UX task analysis flow diagram

Flow diagrams are the most important outcome of task analysis. They document the core of the task – how users interact with a system as they move through and complete their task. They illustrate the sequence of steps and the dependencies. Depending on the scope of your analysis your UX task analysis diagram can incorporate detailed elements such as detailed user decisions, interaction with other individuals, pop-up dialog elements and menu items, other tools, etc. 

For preexisting design solutions, the diagram will often be surprisingly elaborate and messy. The information from a detailed diagram allows you to see unnecessarily complicated information exchange between the system and the user and define actionable design recommendations.

A good practice for creating an organized flow diagram is color-coding the tasks so that you can immediately see which actions are done by the user and which actions are done by the system.

UX task analysis example

To make it easier for you to understand the process, we are going to walk you through a simplified example of UX task analysis on an existing system. In this example, we will be analyzing Marco, who wants to buy a new pair of jeans for the summer.

Marco’s goal: “Purchase the jeans from an online store.”

Step 1: Split the task into smaller subtasks.

  1. Find the jeans on the website
  2. Add jeans to the shopping cart
  3. Proceed to checkout
  4. Checkout

Step 2: Research how exactly Marco completes the subtasks using a website usability testing tool and analyze how he proceeds, or if he most often shops on a mobile device, use a mobile testing tool of course.

Step 3: Analyze Marco’s behavior and prepare data for creating a task analysis diagram.

Subtask 

Steps

1. Find the jeans on the website

  • Open the website

  • Go to the “men” clothing section

  • Find the jeans on the category page

2. Add jeans to the shopping cart

  • Click on the product detail page

  • Choose the size

  • Click “Add to cart”

3. Proceed to checkout

  • Go to the “shopping cart” page

  • Click “Checkout”

  • Register/login or choose a guest checkout option

4. Checkout

  • Enter delivery info

  • Choose the payment method

  • Enter billing info and card number

  • Review the purchase and pay

Step 4: Create a diagram

Here’s an example of what the diagram could look like:

Flow diagram and sequence diagram of Marco's flow

Step 5: Next step

Looking at the task diagram, how can we optimize the task flow to make it more efficient from Marco’s point of view? Can we reduce the number of steps, decisions, and information he needs to know?

This is where your own cutting-edge design solution comes in.

Сonclusion: Less is more

Implementing UX task analysis in your design process is always a good choice. It helps you focus on the user and create a seamless and efficient UX for whatever product you’re working on. And when you’ll need help analyzing users’ tasks at any stage of the process, go ahead and register for a free account on UXtweak and make use of our usability testing tools.

Try UXtweak for UX task analysis!

Gather information about your user and better understand their issues with features such as website and mobile testing, first click testing, session recording and more.

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References and further reading

Courage, Reddish and Wixon: Task Analysis. In Human-Computer Interaction, 2007

Marine: Task Analysis: The Key UX Design Step Everyone Skips, https://www.searchenginewatch.com/2014/03/27/task-analysis-the-key-ux-design-step-everyone-skips/

Mayhew: Requirement Specifications within the Usability Engineering Lifecycle. In Human-Computer Interaction, 2007

Usability’s Body of Knowlege: Taks Analysis, http://usabilitybok.org/task-analysis

People also ask (FAQ)

What is a task analysis in UX?

Task analysis in UX is a systematic approach to mapping out how a user completes their task within a system. It reveals each step needed to be taken, by the user and by the system, the flow, and the dependencies. Often in task analysis larger goals are broken down into smaller subtasks which are all analyzed in detail and this approach can offer insight into any inefficiencies and possible issues.

How to conduct a UX task analysis?

These are the main steps of conducting a UX task analysis:

  1. Define a task you want to analyze
  2. Break the task down into smaller subtasks
  3. Gather information about users (e.g. task-based usability testing)
  4. Analyze the data
  5. Create a flow diagram
Why is task analysis important in UX?

Task analysis is important in UX because it helps you understand your users, and their behavior when completing tasks using your digital product. This understanding can reveal potential issues and areas for improvement, guide design decisions, and support the overall efficiency of the user flow.

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