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Cognitive Task Analysis

Learn about the lived experiences of operatos in actual work conditions

Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) is a family of tools and techniques to elicit, analyze, and represent cognitive aspects of performance, and the operational context in which work is conducted.  Findings from CTA studies have been used extensively in system development, training design, safety research, organizational and workplace design and many other areas of applied cognitive research in a wide diversity of settings and task domains.  

In order to find out how people actually think and function under time-pressured, uncertain and high-risk conditions, we employ data-gathering methods that provide access to the context in which judgments and decisions are made.  We have found that on-site observations of the operational context are a necessary but insufficient source of cognitive performance data.  Equally  important is the opportunity to  “get inside the heads” of decision makers, to find out what they are noticing, what information they seek and what they ignore, and what leads them to a particular set of actions.  

Several CTA methods (e.g. Crandall, Klein & Hoffman 2006; Hoffman, Crandall & Shadbolt 1998; Militello and Hutton 1998) have been developed and used in a number of projects conducted in high risk settings like rail operations.   The data collection approach uses incident accounts, case histories, examples, in-situ observations and cognitively authentic simulations that ground people’s reports about cognition in lived experience and actual behavior in the operational context. The methods provide a way to identify and document the cognitive processes behind behaviors and judgments.  These cognitive processes might include:

  • managing attention
  • managing risk and uncertainty
  • detecting problems
  • conducting mental simulations
  • recognizing patterns
  • making perceptual discriminations between subtle cues 
  • sense making
  • constructing mental models
  • applying strategies and heuristics 
  • deriving inferences
  • recognizing typical events and anomalies

CTA methods allow systematic examination of these cognitive processes and can be used to understand both individual and team cognitive performance. CTA methods are the only way to ensure that a system developed will be useful, usable, and understandable. The risk of not using these methods is high. The much publicized FBI intelligent software failures after the 9/11 attacks (Goldstein, 2005) are an example. These CTA methods are often augmented with other techniques developed within the field of Cognitive Systems Engineering (CSE) that provide insight into the work environment, and cognitive aids operators use. 

CTA methods have been used extensively to study how people make decisions in actual (not laboratory) situations and to develop solutions using information gained from those methods.   Incident-based methods such as the Critical Decision Method and Knowledge Audit have proven particularly useful for revealing expertise, subtle perceptual cues, the sense of what is typical, extensive mental models, and situational understanding that underlies proficient performance in time pressured, dynamic settings such as rail operations.  


  • Crandall, B., Klein, G., & Hoffman, R. R. (2006). Working minds: A practitioner's guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Goldstein, H (2005). Who Killed the Virtual Case File. IEEE Spectrum, 42(9): 24-35. 
  • Hoffman, R. R., Crandall, B. W., & Shadbolt, N. R. (1998). Use of the critical decision method to elicit expert knowledge: A case study in cognitive task analysis methodology. Human Factors, 40(2), 254-276.
  • Militello, L. G., & Hutton, R. J. B. (1998). Applied Cognitive Task Analysis (ACTA): A practitioner's toolkit for understanding cognitive task demands. Ergonomics, Special Issue: Task Analysis, 41(11), 1618-1641.