Back to Basics 8: How users interact with the product (part 2)

Cognitive task analysis & Customer journey mapping

This is a continuation of our previous article where we examined two methods that can be used to learn how users interact with products or services: Task analysis and PCA analysis. Here we will discuss two additional methods well suited for this purpose: Cognitive task analysis and Customer journey mapping.

Cognitive task analysis

What is it? 

Cognitive task analysis (CTA) is a version of task analysis that can be applied to cognitively-demanding tasks that include decision-making, predicting, monitoring, problem-solving, information processing, etc. This method is particularly versatile, as it can be applied to any observable task that includes a cognitive component by characterizing the necessary cognitive activities. Rather than only describing the overt behavioral aspects of achieving a certain task-related goal, this method targets the covert cognitive resources and knowledge required of the user.  

Subject matter experts (SMEs) have accrued considerable domain knowledge, and have constructed mental models that enable them to accurately and efficiently perform tasks within their field. CTAs are often based on the user data gathered from SMEs. The “best practices” obtained from domain experts may be used to inform the design of expert systems, for training purposes, and to discover opportunities for improvement.  

CTAs can be further specified by a number of CTA varieties and techniques. One example is applied cognitive task analysis (ACTA), which is a modified method of CTA developed for use by professionals who lack considerable domain expertise within the field of cognitive science. Various CTA approaches are able to better capture different cognitive aspects. Some place greater focus on specific processes such as mental models, perceptual abilities, strategies, attentional resources, and memory.  


  • Provides a detailed and systematic account of the expert performance of a specific task 
  • When implemented correctly, can uncover the thoughts, decision-making, and other cognitive processes involved in complex task performance 
  • Generates results that can be used for design improvement and the design of training procedures 


  • Can be a somewhat time-consuming and resource-intensive process 
  • Requires a researcher with some domain expertise in cognitive science 
  • Is not always able to accurately capture the non-cognitive aspects of task performance (e.g., access to certain resources, interpersonal relationships) 

How to do it? 

CTAs are typically based on the output of some knowledge elicitation technique (e.g., think-aloud protocol, observation, interviews, concept maps) of SMEs, in order to elicit the expert’s tacit knowledge of a system and to identify which particular steps in the process infer some cognitive demand (e.g., decision-making, compensatory strategies for perceived limitations in the equipment). Observation techniques may be useful for revealing the ways in which experts make decisions during complex task performance, whereas interviews are most useful for understanding the cognitive processes engaged while making critical decisions or solving problems.  

Contextual inquiries and think-aloud protocols may also be very useful for discriminating task-related cognitive processes. For these techniques, “real world” scenarios are presented to the SMEs, and they are asked to talk through how they would use the interface in that context. As the SMEs describe their process, the researcher probes for task-related contextual factors, cues and performance strategies, conceptual knowledge, and cognitive processes.   

The data gathered from SME interviews may be organized within a cognitive demands table, which may inform important design decisions for new or existing systems. The table arranges each cognitive component of the task alongside a description of the associated difficulty level, potential use errors, and any cues or strategies used.  

The main steps involved when performing a cognitive task analysis include: 

  • Identify the domain experts and gather the preliminary user data (e.g., expert interviews, observation) 
  • Map the task to be analyzed to expose areas that embody cognitive components  
  • Identify decision points within the task 
  • Characterize strategies used at the various decision points 
  • Organize the data, and verify the results with the domain experts to ensure that the findings truly capture their expert knowledge 
  • Make any edits to the organized data as recommended by the domain experts 
  • Write a report of the findings, which can be communicated to design teams and stakeholders 

What is the output?

Cognitive task analyses provide a way to examine the more elusive side of workflows – what’s going on in your user’s head. Domain experts will help you identify mental “friction points,” so that you can streamline decisions, point users towards more effective strategies, and make interfaces more intuitive rather than relying on faulty memories. These insights can be delivered in the form of design recommendations that are catered to the knowledge base and mental abilities of your target population. 

Customer journey mapping

What is it? 

A customer journey map can be likened to a persona, in that it is an archetypal representation of a certain type of customer’s overall experience. However, a customer journey map shifts its focus from the user profile to the user’s tasks and experiences over time. It seeks to tell a simple story of the customers’ end-to-end experience as they encounter various touchpoints. 

Given that journey maps are a visual artifact, it essentially provides an easily-digestible overview that can be used to communicate the customer’s needs, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings to a range of professionals and stakeholders within an organization. Furthermore, journey maps help to place the customer experiences within a context, which enables a less disjointed view of various issues or weaknesses that may exist. Being able to visualize the customer journey from start to finish will help make any gaps or key pain points in the user’s experience more apparent, and help to highlight and prioritize potential areas for improvement.  

Journey maps differ from task analyses in that they map out the holistic set of tasks and decisions in chronological order from the moment of having an initial need to the final stage of having that need met. Task analyses, on the other hand, only map out the sequence of steps required for one discrete task. However, both methods typically examine a task or task flow in a sequential manner from the perspective of the end-user.  


  • Visualizes the customer experience from the perspective of the end-user 
  • Encourages opportunities for collaboration between internal teams, and for the internalization of customer needs 
  • Identifies opportunities for improving the customer experience through an understanding of key pain points 
  • Reveals key points in time when you can significantly impact customer experiences or increase product adoption to meet a particular need 


  • Initial data-gathering can be a somewhat complex and resource-intensive process, as data is gathered from multiple sources 
  • May give designers and stakeholders the impression that the customer experience is fixed  

How to do it? 

The journey mapping process starts by gathering various types of user data, often both quantitative and qualitative. The final journey map will contain both statistical and anecdotal data from real end-users so that the complex nature of the customer’s experience can best be captured. Qualitative methods provide compelling anecdotal evidence that helps explain and illustrate various thoughts and feelings associated with touchpoints along the customer’s journey. On the other hand, quantitative metrics are often gathered to effectively communicate findings to stakeholders, and may include ratings of customer satisfaction, importance, helpfulness, or customer loyalty.  

The main steps involved when creating a customer journey map include: 

  • Gather user data using some form of user requirements-gathering method (e.g., surveys, interviews) 
  • Pose questions at each stage of the journey or to multiple users who are at the different stages in the journey, and define the various touchpoints and their significance 
  • Determine which user goals and expectations are not being met 
  • Create the customer journey maps 
  • Communicate the findings, and prioritize needed changes 

What is the output?

The final customer journey map will typically assume the format of an infographic that visually depicts the timeline of the user’s experience, including specific touchpoints, actions, emotions, and decisions. The journey map should be easily scannable and engaging, although the visual design of different journey maps often look quite distinct. Therefore, designers are often enlisted for the data visualization aspect of a journey map, while the researcher will supply the empirical evidence and qualitative findings. The most compelling journey maps are those that scale down the customer’s experience to a simple story that can effectively convey their needs and feelings across their journey in a digestible manner.   

Similar to a user persona, the final customer journey map is typically produced as a physical poster that can be readily viewed by all members of the team. A journey map can serve as an input for design roadmaps, and provide some structure and coherence to various sources of user research and requirements-gathering data. 

Final Thoughts

Along with Task analysis and PCA analysis, Cognitive task analysis and Customer journey mapping are two great methods that can help you better understand how users interact with a product or service, where errors occur, and steps you can take to make your product more user-friendly.  

In the next installment of our ‘Back to Basics’ series, we will focus on the phase of product development in which a user interface design has been established, and the question is: Does the design meet established usability guidelines? 

Jake Ellis is a User Experience Researcher with a background in Human Factors Psychology. At Human Interfaces, he and an expert team of UX professionals work with clients from a variety of industries to develop custom research solutions for any UX challenge. If you need help from a full-service UX research consultancy for a study, recruitment, or facility rental, visit our website, send us an email, or connect with us through LinkedIn