What is user task analysis?

User task analysis is the act of observing users and recording the actions they take to achieve their goals within a website or app. Companies perform task analysis to understand users’ needs in the real world so teams can improve their product’s UX by eliminating steps or lessening users’ mental workload. Here’s how it makes apps more intuitive.

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Why is user task analysis helpful?

User task analysis, also known as user experience analysis, or just task analysis, helps teams counter their biases. Any given design team is invisibly influenced by its own history, culture, and desires, and those preferences can seep into the product, steering it away from its ideal feature set. To go straight to the source and build products based on users’ true needs, teams perform task analyses to observe how users act in the wild. Specifically, task analysis helps teams understand:

  • Users’ goals
  • How users access the site or app
  • What users actually do within the site or app
  • How users’ personal, social, or cultural experiences influence the task
  • How users are influenced by their environment

Left to their own devices, users frequently act in unexpected ways. It’s important for teams to take these behaviors into account. For example, one large security hardware manufacturer conducted a task analysis and found that most new buyers opened the box, threw away the instructions, and then called the support line for help. Knowing this allowed the team to condense its instruction booklet into a single page that said “Read Me First” which reduced the influx of support tickets.

When to perform user task analysis

Teams should perform their task analysis early on in the product design process because it helps them frame the problem and gather user requirements. For companies adhering to a human-centered design process, it takes place during the define stage, where teams clarify the problem they’re trying to solve for users. By observing users, teams collect information for how they should structure their site, arrange their content, produce wireframes, prototype, and usability test. But it doesn’t end there. Teams can and should repeat the task analysis method throughout the design process to ensure they’ve accurately captured the user’s journey, or to revise their analysis after a feature update.

How to perform user task analysis

During a task analysis, teams map out the sequence of activities users go through in their daily lives and the actions required to achieve that goal, as well as their motivations at each stage. The goal for teams is to immerse themselves in users and their environments to truly understand the how and why behind their actions. The Interaction Design Foundation recommends these seven steps:

1. Identify a task to analyze

Teams must first choose which task they want to dissect. Narrowly defined tasks generally produce more useful information than broadly defined ones because they offer more detail. For example, a company could analyze users throughout their entire day, but they’d probably derive more applicable insight if they simply focused on how users navigate the app. But a team could choose to conduct both, depending on what they want to know. A mobile e-commerce site, for instance, could want to know what events in a users’ day triggers them to open and close the app, as well as what causes them to abandon their shopping cart. Begin the task analysis with general research. Investigate the broader market, competitors, customer support trends, and any existing user analytics data. Often, trends in user behaviors, such as drop-offs at a particular point in the marketing funnel, indicate prime areas where task analyses can reveal helpful information.

2. Break the task into 4-8 subtasks

Each task can be broken, or decomposed, into 4-8 subtasks, or steps along the journey. An e-commerce store, for instance, could break the task of making a purchase into:

  • User browses social media
  • Opens the e-commerce app
  • Scrolls through the homepage
  • Adds an item to the shopping cart
  • Enters payment information
  • Completes purchase

A task that requires more than eight subtasks is probably too broad, and can very likely be refined. For example, trying to answer the question “What do shoppers want?” can be decomposed ad infinitum, and isn’t likely to produce results that the team can quickly act on.

3. Observe users conducting tasks

Teams schedule interviews with users to observe them conducting tasks. Teams should focus on recording information such as:

  • Triggers: What prompts users to begin their task?
  • Desired outcome: How do users know when the task is complete?
  • Base knowledge: What do users need to know when starting the task?
  • Required knowledge: What do users need to know to complete the task?
  • Artifacts: What tools or information do users need to take into account during the task?

Teams should record everything, with special attention to the environment. “Tasks don’t exist in a vacuum,” says Josh Decker-Trinidad, a UX Research Consultant. “They happen somewhere, and that environment exerts an influence.” To understand users’ environments, Josh recommends a process known as bodystorming where designers walk through a users’ environment and act like them. “Go physically experience the situation. If you’re working on a fitness app, go work out. If you’re helping hospital patients, go walk around in a gown. You invariably find something you didn’t notice before.”

4. Draw a layered task diagram

Layered task diagrams are essentially flowcharts that capture the task from beginning to end, with arrows from one subtask to the next, including the various paths users can take. Teams take the raw information gathered during observation and organize it into a task diagram.  

5. Write the story

Diagrams capture actions, but they don’t capture why users do things, so teams should write the story of the task as well. In the story, they should record the emotional inner lives of users, including the nuances of each decision, their motivations during each subtask, and their feelings at each stage—both good and bad.

6. Validate the findings

Teams should review their diagrams and stories with teammates who understand the product, but weren’t involved in the task analysis—an activity known as a user task analysis assessment. Those teammates can check the materials for consistency. For example, they could point out a missing subtask, or question whether the materials sufficiently explain users’ motivations.

7. Analyze the results

With the task analysis complete, teams should make careful note of where users’ actions diverged from what they expected, or whether any of the results surprised them. Perhaps they found that users frequently encountered a glitch but never complained because they found a workaround. Or perhaps consumers use their app in combination with a competitor’s app. Deviations from the norm often highlight opportunities for the team to release new or improved features to make the app more useful and intuitive. Teams should also share the results with the entire company via a presentation deck or on a whiteboard in the common area. Everyone team in the company—from advertising to sales to legal—can benefit from a deeper understanding of the customer.

Three task analysis examples

A news app asks: When do users read the news?

Subtasks:

  • User wakes up
  • Checks phone notifications
  • Commutes to work, sometimes read news
  • Spends day at work, checks notifications, sometimes read news
  • Commutes home
  • Goes to gym
  • Eats dinner
  • Goes to bed

What the team learned: Users read the news in the morning, but not in the evening. The team hypothesizes that they can increase usage by sending push notifications for breaking news at night and starts A/B testing.

A messaging app asks: How do users create group chats?

  • User opens app
  • Messages friend, mentions another friend
  • Goes to app home page, creates a new chat, invites both friends
  • Messages both friends from one group chat

What the team learned: Users must go through several steps to start a group chat. The team can make things simpler by adding a button that allows users to invite friends to join the current chat.

Learn how Viber increased messaging 15 percent with Mixpanel. Read the case study.

An e-commerce store asks: Why do shoppers abandon shopping carts?

  • User adds item to shopping cart
  • User fills out shipping information, uses the browser’s autofill feature
  • User adds payment information
  • User backtracks one screen to look for the cost of shipping
  • User can’t find cost of shipping and abandons

What the team learned: Users abandon transactions when they can’t see the cost of shipping. The team can give users a breakdown of the total cost, including shipping, throughout the checkout process to improve conversions.

Learn how Ventee-Privee drove $3 billion in revenue with Mixpanel. Read the case study.