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Cognitive Task Analysis

Cognitive task analysis (CTA) is a type of Task analysis aimed at understanding tasks that require a lot of cognitive activity from the user, such as decision-making, problem-solving, memory, attention and judgement.

The cognitive task analysis methods analyze and represent the cognitive activities users utilize to perform certain tasks. Some of the steps of a cognitive task analysis are: the mapping of the task, identifying the critical decision points, clustering, linking, and prioritizing them, and characterizing the strategies used (Klein, G. A. (1993). Naturalistic decision making: Implications for design. Wright Patterson AFB, OH: Crew Systems Ergonomics Information Analysis Center.). There is a collection of methods available for conducting a cognitive task analysis. Applied Cognitive Task Analysis (ACTA), the Critical Decision Method (CDM), Skill-Based CTA Framework, Task-Knowledge Structures (TKS) and the Cognitive Function Model (CFM) are a few examples.

Cognitive task analysis has been used to examine:

  • Performance differences between novices and experts
  • Mental workload associated with complex controls and displays
  • Decision-making of experts
  • The development and evolution of mental models.
  • Information requirements for command and control systems
  • Troubleshooting, fault isolation, and diagnostic procedures

Related Links

Crandall, B., Klein, G., Hoffman, R. R. (2006). Working Minds: A Practitioner's Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. MIT Press. "This is an important book for the engineering of complex systems and information technology systems."

Klein, G. (1998). Sources of power: How people make decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Gary Klein is a leading figure in cognitive task analysis.

This book describes how experts solve problems, often under great stress. He notes that rational analysis where the costs and benefits are considered logically is not the primary approach by experts under difficult conditions.

Luczak, H. (1997). Task analysis. In Salvendy, G. The Handbook of Human Factors and Ergnomonics. New York, NY: Wiley. 340-416.

Luczak list a variety of cognitive task analysis methods including; decision ladders, GOMS, verbal protocol analysis, and concept mapping.

Richard E. Clark, David F. Feldon, Jeroen van Merriënboer, Kenneth A. Yates, and Sean Early (2007). Cognitive Task Analysis. In: handbook of research on educational communications and technology. Routledge.

This chapter presents an overview of the current state of CTA in research and practice.

Detailed description

A paper from the World Bank Institute Evaluation Group describes some of the advantages and disadvantages of the cognitive task analysis method.


  • A cognitive task analysis generates detailed, precise information on the nature of expert performance in a specific task of interest.
  • When implemented correctly, cognitive task analysis techniques are a highly valid sources of information on expert cognitive processes.
  • A cognitive task analysis provides systematic procedures (rather than hit-or-miss steps) for ascertaining expert cognitive processes.


  • Analysis of the data gathered during a cognitive task analysis can be time-intensive.
  • Cognitive task analysis does not always capture other non-cognitive attributes necessary for accomplishing results (such as, physical capabilities, access to resources, and interpersonal relationships).
  • The results of a cognitive task analysis can be misleading when expert performers have performance capacities beyond that of others (for example, a cognitive task analysis can be done with high performing professional athletes but implementation of cognitive processes alone will not duplicate performance).


Lifecycle: Process/task analysis
Sources and contributors: 
Carla Saraiva, Nigel Bevan
Released: 2012-04
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