Task Analysis and Product Design

Imagine your were given an assignment to develop a product that could help people eat healthy. How would you go about creating such a thing? What would you need to learn/understand? What is the right medium or technology vehicle for such a product? How would you even start? Below is a very brief outline of how to get started and the key tools necessary for the job.

Project Goals

Kids from India and Vegetable ChoicesThe first order of business is figuring out the business needs and goals: What is the product really supposed to do? You have to ask this even if you are the one who is the client on this project. But, most probably, you are working for someone else — the client — and you have to start by understanding what your client really wants to do. You can do that in several ways:

  • Analyzing the Request for Proposals: On many such projects, there will be an initial document, something like an RFP, that outlines the business goals and desires of the client. While some RFPs are very detailed and fully fleshed out, most are not. There are many reasons for this. Some clients are worried someone will “steal” their ideas and bring “their” product to market first. This is problematic because the client is purposefully keeping information from you.
    Some clients are just not sure what they are really looking for. In these cases, RFPs become tools for idea exploration — the more designers participate and respond to an RFP, the more ideas are put on the table. This is obviously not ideal — the business goals for the project are not defined prior to moving forward with design. There’s no way to make a bid on projects like these, since there are too many unknowns and design will continuously shift and change.
    There are some clients who don’t know what they are looking for and are up front about it — this is a rarity. But this is also an interesting design problem. In this situation, as a designer, you get a lot freedom to help define the product. This is a great place to be (if you are getting paid for your time…).
  • Product Design Interviews: Sometimes, it is your job to define the scope of the project. You get to interview the the decision-makers to find their business goals and constrains. You also get to figure out the potential needs of the users and the parameters of the marketplace. And finally, you get to come up with a proposal for what the project could be given all the variables you’ve discovered and information you’ve synthesized. Ideally, RFPs are based on such background research. But this is a very top-down design approach.
  • Ethnographic Research: Sometimes, top-down approach can generate a lot of assumptions about product users — “people are driven by the need to eat healthy, we just need to tell them what that means…” This might be true…but there might also be other factors involved: availability of healthy foods in the neighborhood, time pressures in getting and preparing food, financial problems, lack of ability or know-how when it comes to cooking, inability to cook due to regulations (think student dorms), health reasons, and other concerns which might be difficult to predict from the distance of the design office. This is where ethnographic research can really illuminate some unexpected problems. Ethnographic research can be done via observations, interviews, surveys, etc. Each method has a time and a place and can give great insight to the problem.
  • Task Analysis: How can we figure out why people don’t make healthy foods at home? We can ask, but this is just one window into the problem. Task analysis provides another way of gathering information. Instead of asking people why they don’t eat healthy food, you ask them to eat a healthy meal (or several) and observe what they do. You want to find out how such instruction gets interpreted by the targeted audience and how they go about trying to act on it. Amazing insight can come from doing task analysis.
    But it is not enough to learn how the potential audience executes the instruction to eat healthy. You want to do a task analysis on someone who actually does eat healthy all the time. What is it that they, the experts, do? How does this compare to the targeted user group? What does the product need to do to help those who don’t eat healthy be more like the expert that do?

Converting Project Goals into Action

Once you figured out what you want to do, you need to translate that into some plan of action. What will the product be? How does one take the goal of “help people eat healthy” with all of the business requirements and user analysis and turn that into a product?

Like many things that I talk about in my Product Design Class, Task Analysis can be broken down into components. We can start with the first two aspects of task analysis described above:

  1. What does the target audience do now when confronted with the problem? If you ask someone to eat healthy, how do they interpret this command? How do they decide what is healthy? How do they turn a command into a task that they can follow through on? Using the tools of Ethnographic Research, we can find answers to these questions.
  2. What do experts do when asked to solve the same problem? The second part of task analysis is finding out what the ideal solution to the problem looks like. This is easer to accomplish with the tool kit available to usability researchers. Since we are looking for ideal cases, we don’t need a large sample, and we can gather the data via observation and questioning — we are not worried that we are changing the behavior by our intrusion, since we are explicitly working with experts.

The final step in the task analysis is to translate the behavior of the experts into a set of steps/rules that can be taught or encouraged or supported in the target audience. While experts can do many things well, perhaps not all of the things they do is absolutely necessary for the level of desired performance we are seeking in our target audience. We want to find what’s doable and what’s possible given our resources, goals, and the target audience. This is where the creativity of product designers comes in — a great product designer can find just the right solution to this complex problem. Finding these design solutions is why my job is so much fun!