Task Analysis a UX Designer’s Best Friend

Task analysis is a critical part of any design project and one that is all too often skipped in favour of other seemingly more interesting actions. In fact, task analysis is essential to the success of a design project and once you’ve got the hang of it – it’s surprisingly easy too. It can be used equally successfully on both mobile and desktop projects (or any combination of the two). It’s an important weapon in your UX arsenal and one that’s very simple to acquire.

Task analysis is a simple and effective process for laying out tasks from a user’s perspective. It is sometimes also referred to as “user scenarios”. When done properly task analysis is completely agnostic of the current situation and the technology that you use. In short, it’s not about creating use cases (which is what the development team will do once you’ve completed your task analysis) but it is close to a user story as defined in agile methodologies.

This approach helps you 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 needs to guide the process instead.

Author/Copyright holder: Ggd101. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

A Simple Approach to Task Analysis

The good news is that task analysis is actually pretty easy. It’s not a complicated process but it does require a little thought.

Begin by Defining the Problem(s)

If you don’t know what the user’s problem(s) is (are) you cannot hope to solve it (them). You may solve a problem without defining the user’s problems but there’s a very strong chance it will be a problem that your users don’t care about.

So let’s take a look at something nearly ubiquitous to websites and apps today; the shopping cart.

What’s a shopping cart going to be used for? Buying stuff, right? Well… when we look closely at the problem we find that buying stuff is only a part of what your users want from their shopping carts. The real list of uses might go like this:

  • I want to buy one thing. I want to find it, pay for it and disappear. I may not need your shopping cart at all – maybe we could go straight to the checkout?
  • I want to buy one thing. However, I don’t know that I need other things that go with that thing. You might need to tell me about accessories and complementary items for this.
  • I want to buy lots of things. I need to be able to mark the things I want and keep searching around on your site for other stuff. When I’m ready, I’ll buy all those things.
  • I’m really just looking around. I’ll make things that I might want (a wish list) and then maybe I’ll buy some of that today. I’d like to come back again in the future and maybe buy some of the other stuff from my list.
  • I’m in the market for a product (say a camera) but I don’t know which one. I’d like to mark a few of the products I’m interested in and then compare them before making my choice.

The traditional shopping cart normally only solves problem number 3 for a user. The other problems are often neglected or handled poorly because the product wasn’t designed with solving all those problems, for me, in mind.

Don't forget that defining the problem also helps with a general scientific approach to your work as shown here:

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Then Prioritize Based on Demand (Understood Through Research)

Sure, there are 5 problems to tackle in our example but which is going to be the most common user need? You need to work with users to find out how they will behave when they use your product. Camera shoppers may need comparisons more often than not, it seems unlikely that people shopping for bananas will need the same facility as regularly.

Ideally, you want to conduct this research in a setting that doesn’t pre-suppose a solution. You might be better off visiting a bricks and mortar camera shop rather than getting them to work on the current version of your website or application. You also want to work with potential users who aren’t already using your offering; otherwise they may already be biased to working in a specific way because they’ve stopped considering the alternatives.

What are you looking for in your research?

In order to get a task flow developed; you need to consider 5 key stages when observing users in task analysis research:

  • The ignition point. What is it that prompts a user to begin a task?
  • The focus point. What is it that will tell the user that the task is finished?
  • What do they already know? What knowledge does the average user have when they begin the task?
  • What do they need to know? In order to reach the focus point what additional knowledge will the user require?
  • What do they use? Which tools, processes or information will the user utilize during the completion of the task?

Note: Where possible, you want to be able to leverage the knowledge component into your designed product – this eliminates the user’s knowledge gap and makes the user experience a more convenient one.

Document the Task Flow

Creating a task flow is a pretty easy job. The best place to start is with a bunch of sticky notes and to document the high-level processes first and then gradually document the more involved tasks following that.

To keep things simple you can use coloured sticky-notes to group your task elements (or number the notes or use another visual cue to make the notes self-explanatory):

  • User groups (actions that the user will carry out)
  • System groups (actions that the system can carry out for the user)
  • Object/tool/information groups (requirements of the user to carry out the action)
  • Question groups (any unresolved questions or difficulties associated with the task)

Optimize The Task

Once you’ve determined the task flow; your job is not finished. Now, you want to start at the focus point of the task and work backwards through it. Your goal is to eliminate as many steps in the task flow as possible. If you can’t eliminate a step then you want to try and switch any action is a user group to one in a system group (e.g. automate for efficiency).

Wherever possible you want to remove complexity from the process. Having said that, you don’t want to over-simplify either – your objective is to get your user to their focus point through each set of processes you provide for them. Don’t remove functionality if it prevents the user from achieving their goal.

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The Takeaway

Task analysis lets you focus on the user’s problems without getting involved with your technology or current solutions. This, in turn, enables you to create the simplest most relevant solutions to those problems. Once you have those solutions – incorporating them in your design should deliver better user experiences. There are different processes available for task analysis but the one offered above is a very simple method to get you started.


An alternative task analysis system based on hierarchy can be found here - http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2010/02/hierarchical-task-analysis.php

A short foray into task analysis as part of the difference between UX and UI design can be found here - http://www.applicoinc.com/blog/whats-difference-ux-ui-design/

An examination of the differences between task analysis and experience mapping can be found here - http://akendi.com/blog/experience-mapping-vs-task-analysis/

A nice visual guide to task flows can also be found here - http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2015/03/tools-for-mobile-ux-design-task-flows.php

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: falkowata. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

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