Many would argue that task analysis is one of the cornerstones of instructional design. But just what is a task analysis? Well, the name says a lot about it: you literally analyze a task in order to document, step by step, how that task is completed.

This might seem like a very straightforward and simple thing to do, but even some of the easiest tasks we do are quite complex, and there are more steps involved than we realize when we break them down. For example, sending an email. Easy task, right? Maybe a three-step process? Well, when you break it down, the task analysis for writing an email might look like this:

Example Task Analysis: How to Send an Email

  • Click New Email button
  • Click inside the “to:” field
  • Type recipient’s email address
  • Click inside the subject field
  • Type the subject of the email
  • Click inside the body field
  • Type email, including a greeting and closing sentence.
  • Add signature
  • Double-check email for correct spelling and grammar
  • Click Send button

And the process could become even more granular if you explain how to add multiple recipients, how to insert an attachment, etc. Additionally, this doesn’t include brainstorming the right subject line and then writing an appropriate message that best conveys the intended thoughts. As you can see, even the most average task has a lot behind it.

Why is task analysis important for becoming a successful instructional designer? The simple reason is that instructional designers create training, and training teaches the learner how to DO something. Task analysis is ALL about the doing. For that reason alone, it’s the instructional designer’s best friend! Let’s take a closer look at what’s involved in completing a task analysis.

I always find it best to illustrate these types of processes with an example. With that in mind, let’s say you work at a midsize media organization and your boss has asked 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. Let’s look at what you should do to complete this task analysis.

Step 1: Identify the Task to Analyze

The first step is to identify the task that you’re going to analyze. Tasks are basically 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.

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

So, in our example, your first task to analyze is “Add new content to social media.”

Step 2: Break Down the Task into Subtasks

Once you’ve identified your task, you need to identify the subtasks, the smaller “chunks” of the larger task. These should also be brief and start with an action verb.

In our example, you want to find out the subtasks of adding new content to social media. You can find out this information either through discussion and/or observation with the social media manager. Let’s say you discover that the subtasks for adding new content to social media are:

  • Check the editorial calendar
  • Add new content to Twitter
  • Add new content to LinkedIn

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

Step 3: Identify Steps in Subtasks

We’ve identified our task and we’ve broken it down into subtasks. Our final step is to identify and list the steps for each subtask. This is done by breaking down all of the subtasks into the specific actions that are carried out, step by step, in chronological order. The key here is to use the Goldilocks approach to detail: not too much and not too little. Just the right amount so learners can follow the instructions easily. Again, as with tasks and subtasks, your steps should always start with an action verb. Here’s an example:

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 on today’s date

1.1.3 Click on 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

1.1.6 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

I’m not exaggerating when I say that instructional designers could debate for hours whether a step should be simply “log in,” or broken down further into “enter username,” “enter password,” and “click the login button.” Again, it all comes down to the Goldilocks approach of just enough detail.

And there you have it! Three easy steps to completing a task analysis. Here are a few more tips I’ve picked up when it comes to doing a proper task analysis:

The Don’ts of Task Analysis:

  • Don’t include nouns
  • Don’t get too detailed
  • Don’t use subjective statements
  • Don’t use goal statements

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!

Follow us on Twitter and come back to E-learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

Jacinta Nelligan
Alexander Salas
Chris Purvis
Jerrie Paniri
Chris Janzen

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

David Kolmer