Cognitive task analysis (CTA) refers to a suite of scientific methods designed to identify the cognitive skills, strategies, and knowledge required to perform tasks proficiently. The goal of CTA is to use this information to improve instruction, training, and technological design (e.g., decision aids) for the purposes of making work more efficient, productive, satisfying, and of a higher quality, or to accelerate proficiency.
Background and Historical Development
CTA has a long history, spanning multiple communities of practice, ranging from those studying perception and thinking, to those studying the behavioral aspects of work and, subsequently, skilled performance in applied settings. Prior to the 1980s, these communities included (in approximate chronological order) those practicing introspection, applied and industrial psychology, task analysis, ergonomics, human factors, and instructional design.
In the early 1900s, physical labor dominated many aspects of work, and physical issues, such as fatigue and injury risk, were of concern. Accordingly, task analytic methods were often behaviorally oriented—designed to decrease inefficiencies and to increase productivity. Classic examples of task analysis include Frederick W. Taylor’s time–motion studies of factory workers, and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s study of bricklayers. Although worker behavior was emphasized during early task analyses, the decomposition of tasks using such methods rarely excluded cognitive aspects of work. However, over time, as work became more reliant on higher order cognition, the focus of task analysis shifted.
Despite historical antecedents, the term CTA did not emerge until the 1980s, when it was used to understand the cognitive activities involved in man–machine systems. A key turning point was a Nuclear Regulatory Commission workshop in 1982 on Cognitive Modeling of Nuclear Plant Operators, attended by cognitive and human factors psychologists David Woods, Donald Norman, Thomas Sheridan, William Rouse, and Thomas Moran. The changing nature of technology in the workplace and the increasing complexity of work systems resulted in a greater emphasis on cognitive work and, therefore, a greater need for cognitively oriented task analytic methods.
From the 1980s, a system-oriented perspective to CTA prevailed, focused on understanding adaptive cognitive work in complex contexts. This joint-cognitive systems or sociotechnical systems perspective viewed cognitive work as an embedded phenomenon—inextricably tied to the context in which it occurs. In naturalistic contexts, (a) systems may comprise multiple (human and technological) components; (b) task goals are frequently ill-defined; (c) planning may only be possible at general levels of abstraction; (d) information may be limited; and (e) complexity, uncertainty, time constraint, and stress are the norm. Cognition in these contexts is often emergent or distributed across individuals—and technology. Moreover, cognition is also constrained by broader professional, organizational, and institutional contexts, which influence the strategies, plans, goals, processes, and policies employed. Consequently, CTA has evolved as a means to study adaptive, resilient, and collaborative cognition in simulated environments and, especially, in the field.
CTA has been championed by the cognitive systems engineering and naturalistic decision-making communities, and cognitive scientists studying expertise, including cognitive anthropologists and ethnographers. The range of CTA methods is vast. Rather than present an exhaustive list of methods, the reader is referred to Beth Crandall, Gary Klein, and Robert R. Hoffman’s 2006 book Working Minds. A more detailed description of one particular method, the Critical Decision Method, is provided later in this entry.
In general, CTA is most synonymous with knowledge elicitation and cognitive process-stracing data collection methods, of which there are several classes: self-reports, automated capture-based techniques, observation, and interviews. As with all empirical methods, there are strengths and limitations to each method. Self-reports, such as questionnaires, rating scales, and diaries, permit efficient data collection and interpretation, which can be automated by computer. However, valid psychometric scale development takes time and effort. Moreover, self-reports do not afford the opportunity for additional exploration of the data, which may be problematic given the possibility of participant self-presentation or amotivation.
Automated capture includes computer-based tasks or those implemented in simulated task environments (e.g., situation awareness global assessment technique; temporal or spatial occlusion). These methods allow direct capture of important cognitive behavior in situ, such as making a specific prediction or decision. However, they may require supplementary methods (e.g., a priori goal-directed task analysis, verbal reports, eye movements) to generate design recommendations. Additionally, they are costly to establish, require extensive system and scenario development, and have limited flexibility.
Observation like ethnographic immersion and shadowing provide first-hand information about how events unfold (and permits post hoc verification of information elicited via other methods). However, as with many CTA techniques, it requires domain knowledge to identify useful targets for data coding and interpretation. Observation is not always feasible (e.g., low-frequency, life-threatening events), can be intrusive and, per the Hawthorne effect, can change the behavior of those being observed.
Structured and semi-structured interview techniques (e.g., critical decision method and crystal ball technique) that employ directed probes can reveal information that other methods would not. In addition to conducting naturalistic studies, interviews and observations can be combined with experiment-like tasks (e.g., 20 questions, card sorting) to generate useful insights into the cognitive processes underlying superior performance. However, trained interviewers are required, interviewees’ memory is fallible, and the validity of retrospective reports has been questioned.
The Critical Decision Method
The critical decision method (CDM) was developed by Gary Klein, Robert Hoffman, and colleagues and is adapted from the critical incident technique (CIT) developed by John Flanagan and colleagues (including Paul Fitts)—which was designed to generate a functional description of, and identify the critical requirements for, on-the-job performance in military settings. Like the CIT, rather than probe for general knowledge, the CDM is a case-based, retrospective, semi-structured interview method. It uses multiple sweeps to elicit a participant’s thinking in a specific, non-routine incident, in which they were an active decision maker and played a central role. A particular goal of the CDM is to focus the interviewee on the parts of the incident that most
affected their decision making and to elicit information about the macrocognitive functions and processes—such as situation assessment, sense-making, (re)planning, and decision making—that supported proficient performance. Although elicitation is not limited to events that could be directly observed, the use of skilled individuals and specific, challenging, and recent events in which they were emotionally invested was hypothesized to scaffold memory recall based on their elaborate encoding of such incidents.
In the first sweep of the CDM, a brief (e.g., 30 to 60-second) outline of a specific incident is elicited (see below for pointers on framing the interview). In a second sweep, a detailed timeline is constructed to elaborate on the incident. This should highlight critical points where the interviewee made good or bad decisions; the goals or understanding changed; the situation itself changed; the interviewee acted, failed to act, or could have acted differently; or relied on personal expertise. Once delineated, the timeline is restated back to the interviewee to develop a shared understanding of the facts and to resolve inconsistencies.
In the third, progressively deepening, sweep, the interviewer tries to build a contextualized and comprehensive description of the incident from the interviewee’s point of view. The goal is to identify the interviewee’s knowledge, perceptions, expectations, options, goals, judgments, confusions, concerns, and uncertainties at each point. Targeted probe questions are used to investigate each point in turn. The CDM provides a list of useful probes for many different types of situations. For instance, probes for investigating decision points and shifts in situation assessment may include: “What was it about the situation that let you know what was going to happen?” and “What were your overriding concerns at that point?” Probes for investigating cues, expert strategies, and goals may include: “What were you noticing at that point?” “What information did you use in making this decision?” “What were you hoping to accomplish at this point?”
A fourth sweep can be used to gain additional insight into the interviewee’s experience, skills, and knowledge using what if queries, for instance, to determine how a novice may have handled the situation differently. Although some probes require reflection on strategizing and decision making, which increases subjectivity and may affect reliability, they provide a rich source for hypotheses formation and theory development. With subsequent analysis, these data can be leveraged into design-based hypotheses, for training or technology development to aid future performance and learning.
From Elicitation to Design
To meet the goal of communicating results (e.g., from a set of CDM interviews) for improving system performance, CTA embraces a range of data analysis and knowledge representation methods. Quantitative and qualitative methods are leveraged to understand the data, including hit rates, reaction times, thematic or categorical analyses, chronological or protocol analyses, and conceptual and statistical or computational models.
As with all qualitative analyses, the goal of the CTA practitioner is to unravel the story contained in the data. After conducting data and quality control checks, analysis is used to identify and organize the cognitive elements so that patterns in the data can emerge. Importantly, elements should be informed by asking cognitive questions of the data, such as: What didn’t they see? What information did they use? Where did they search? What were their concerns? What were they thinking about? At this stage, knowing the data is key and organizational procedures—such as categorizing, sorting, making lists, counting, and descriptive statistics— can be used to assist in this effort.
Once individual elements have been identified, the next goal is to identify the higher order data structure that describes the relationships between elements. This is done by generalizing across participants to describe regularities in the data (e.g., by looking for co and re-occurrences, or their absence, that might signify a pattern); organizing elements into inclusive, overarching formats (e.g., create tables of difficult decisions, cues used, and strategies employed); looking for similarities or differences across groups (e.g., cues used by experts but not novices); and using statistical analyses to examine differences and relationships.
Following the data analysis, knowledge must be represented in a useful form. Fortunately, many forms of representation exist as a natural part of the analysis process. However, representations developed early in the process will be data driven, whereas those developed later should be meaning driven. Narrative-based representations
(story summaries) can extend participants’ verbalizations to highlight what is implicit in the data. Graphical chronologies like timelines that retain the order of events can be used to represent the multiple viewpoints of team members and permit subjective and objective accounts to be linked. Data organizers, such as decision requirements tables, permit multiple sources of information to be synthesized to form an integrated representation. Conceptual mapping tools (e.g., http://cmap.ihmc.us) allow knowledge structures to be graphically and hierarchically represented. Process diagrams like a decision ladder represent cognition in action and provide insights into aspects of cognitive complexity that might otherwise appear to be simple.
The selection of CTA methods should be driven by framing questions, including: What is the primary issue or problem to be addressed by the CTA? What is the deliverable? Inexperienced CTA practitioners frequently underspecify the project and adopt a method-driven, rather than problem-ocused, approach. To overcome these biases and to direct project resources efficiently, practitioners should become familiar with the target domain, the study of micro and macrocognition, and the range of CTA methods available, and they should conduct preliminary investigations to identify the most cognitively challenging task components.
Translating CTA into actual design is often the least well-executed and most ambiguous step. However, it need not be. Making explicit what will be delivered (training plan, intervention, or decision aids) and agreeing on this with the target users permits the original goal—positively changing (system) behavior—to be attained. To do this effectively, however, the CTA practitioner needs to identify the stakeholders involved, understand their goals and needs, and determine the intended use of the deliverable. Frequently, data exist that can help frame a CTA project—for instance, behavioral task analyses or documented evidence about training or system inadequacies. Generating outcomes without reference to these issues will likely result in design recommendations or tools that do not generate an effective—or even adequate—solution to the problem. Ultimately, the goal of any CTA is to use mixed methods to generate products that leverage expert data in a way that can improve performance.
- Crandall, B. W., Klein, G. A., & Hoffman, R. R. (2006). Working minds: A practitioner’s guide to cognitive task analysis. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Hoffman, R. R., Crandall, B. W., & Shadbolt, N. (1998). Use of the critical decision method to elicit expert knowledge: A case study in the methodology of cognitive task analysis. Human Factors, 40, 254–276.
- Hoffman, R. R., & Militello, L. (2008). Perspectives on cognitive task analysis: Historical origins and modern communities of practice. New York: Psychology Press.
- Hoffman, R. R., Ward, P., Feltovich, P. J., DiBello, L., Fiore, S. M., & Andrews, D. (2013). Accelerated expertise: Training for high proficiency in a complex world. New York: Psychology Press.
- Klein, G. A., Calderwood, R., & Clinton-Cirocco, A. (1986). Rapid decision making on the fire ground. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting Proceedings, 30, 576–580.
- Salmon, P. M., Stanton, N. A., Gibbon, A. C., Jenkins, D. P., & Walker, G. H. (2010). Human factors methods and sports science: A practical guide. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
- Schraagen, J. M., Chipman, S. F., & Shalin, V. L. (2000). Cognitive task analysis. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.