task analysis

Task analysis is one of the cornerstones of instructional design. But what is it, really? The name says a lot: you analyze a task, step by step, to document how that task is completed.

At first glance, this seems like a straightforward thing. But even the easiest tasks can be quite complex. Things you do every day might seem simple when you first think about them. But what happens when you eliminate internalized or assumed knowledge? 

Take sending an email. Easy, right? Maybe four or five steps? 

  1. Click the New Mail icon
  2. Enter a Recipient
  3. Enter a Subject
  4. Enter your email text 
  5. Click Send

But what about carbon copy or blind carbon copy recipients? What if you need to attach an invoice or picture? What app do you use to create the email in the first place (or are you sending from Gmail in your browser)? For that matter, from which device are you sending the email? 

Suddenly that “simple” task is a set of processes, organized by device, operating system, and application, with various subtasks along the way accounting for mailing list complexities and the purpose of your email. As I was writing this I came up with about a dozen different variations, all of which would need to be closely analyzed and broken down precisely. 

Even the most average task has a lot behind it.

This is why understanding how to do a task analysis is so important to becoming a successful instructional designer. When instructional designers create training, they’re teaching the learner how to accomplish something. Task analysis helps you focus on what they’re going to do and how they’ll do it (don’t worry so much about the why; that comes later). 

The easiest way to illustrate the process is with an example. Let’s say you work at a midsize media company and your boss asks you to complete a task analysis on how the company’s social media manager does her job. They want this documented for training purposes for future hires. That means you’ll need to:

  1. Identify the task to analyze
  2. Break down the task into subtasks
  3. Identify steps in subtasks

Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.

Step 1: Identify the Task to Analyze

Tasks are the duties carried out by someone on the job. The social media manager carries out a lot of duties, so you need to be able to break them down into broad activities (aka tasks!) and focus on them one at a time. Don’t worry about all the little things that make up the task; we’ll get to that in a second. Here we’re looking to paint with broad strokes.

One of the social media manager’s tasks is to add new content to social media sites every morning. Your tasks should describe what a person does on the job and must start with an action verb.

So, in this case, the first task to analyze is “Add new content to social media.”

Step 2: Break Down the Task into Subtasks

Once you identify the task, you need to identify the subtasks, the smaller processes that make up the larger task. Remember in the email example above where I mentioned attachments and carbon-copying recipients? That’s the kind of thing you capture here. These should also be brief and start with an action verb.

Continuing the social media manager example, you need to find out the subtasks of adding new content to social media. You can figure this out by talking to or observing the social media manager. Through this process, you discover that the subtasks for adding new content to social media are:

  • Check the editorial calendar
  • Add new content to Twitter

You’re making good progress! You can now move on to Step 3.

Step 3: Identify Steps in Subtasks

Now it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. You’ve identified the task and broken it down into subtasks. The final step, then, is to identify and list the steps for each subtask. 

Do this by breaking down all of the subtasks into specific step-by-step, chronological actions. The key here is to use a “Goldilocks” approach to detail: not too much and not too little. Use just the right amount so learners can follow the instructions easily. Again, as with tasks and subtasks, your steps need to start with an action verb. 

So, putting everything together from steps 1 and 2 and then breaking the subtasks into steps, your final task analysis would look like this;

1. Adding new content to social media  

1.1 Check the editorial calendar

1.1.1 Navigate to the calendar webpage

1.1.2 Click today’s date

1.1.3 Click newest article title to open article

1.1.4 Click inside article URL bar

1.1.5 Copy URL for article to clipboard

1.1.6 Highlight title text of article

1.1.7 Copy the title text to clipboard

1.1.8 Close the calendar

1.2 Add new content to Twitter

1.2.1 Navigate to Twitter account

1.2.2 Log in to Twitter account

1.2.3 Click Tweet button

1.2.4 Paste article title from clipboard

1.2.5 Paste article URL from clipboard

1.2.6 Click Tweet button to publish

There are several ways to approach task analysis. It’s a fine art deciding how far down the rabbit hole you need to go with detail. Instructional designers can debate for hours whether saying “log in” is enough or if that needs to be broken down further into “enter user name,” “enter password,” and “click the login button.” Again, it all comes down to figuring out how much detail is just right for your audience.

Wrapping Up

That’s it! As you can see, while creating a task analysis boils down to “just” three steps, there are a lot of nuanced decisions to make along the way. Remember the Goldilocks Rule and always consider your audience and the seriousness of the subject matter when deciding just how nitpicky you need your task analysis to be. After all, there’s a marked difference between how much detail a learner needs when they’re learning how to perform brain surgery versus filling out their timecard.

Do you have any do’s and don’ts of your own for completing a successful task analysis? If you do, please leave a comment below. We love to hear your feedback!

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Years ago, long before I ever even considered that I might possibly be an ID, my English professor assigned us a paper to write a set of directions for a task of our choosing that could be successfully executed by anyone who could read English. Coincidentally, like Jerrie, I chose making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but for my part because I was lazy and wanted to pick a task for which it would be very easy to write the steps. Two days later I had a paper that was just shy of three pages (it was an English class, and we had to write it in prose, not instructional format), and a much deeper understanding of how much unconscious knowledge and experience we rely on to perform what we consider to be the simplest of tasks. I've never forgotten the lesson I got from writing that paper, an... Expand

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Task analysis is a systematic process used to understand a task or activity in detail. It involves breaking down a complex task into smaller, manageable steps to identify the specific skills and knowledge required. Here's a guide on how to perform a task analysis like a pro: 1. Define the Task: Clearly define the task you want to analyze. Be specific about the goals and objectives. 2. Identify the Users: Determine who will be performing the task. Consider their background, skills, and knowledge. 3. Break Down the Task: Divide the task into smaller, manageable steps. Start with the overall goal and then break it down into subtasks. 4. Sequence the Steps: Arrange the steps in a logical order. Consider dependencies between steps and how they contribute to the overall task. 5. Gathe... Expand

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