Critical Incident Technique

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Critical Incident Technique (CIT)


Critical Incident Technique (CIT) is a method by which the observations of human behavior that comply with defined criteria are gathered. Usually Critical Incidents are typically collected by an interview of a respondent and then used to solve practical problems. Here is a quick breakdown of the method:
1. Determine and review the incident
2. Collect details about the incident from participants
3. Identify issues
4. Determine ways to resolve issues
5. Evaluation of resolution


Colonel John C. Flanagan, Director of the Division of Aviation Psychology, used CIT in 1954 to determine effective and ineffective work practices among aviators. The foundation of the idea is laid in 1930 by Sir Francis Galton. (Wikipedia 2007)

Principal use

Because of method’s ability to recognize major problem areas in a system, it is mostly used in early stages of development projects. CIT is used very frequently in market research to investigate and identify sources of dissatisfaction in service or product. It is also widely used in organizational development as a research technique for identification of organizational problems. (Wikipedia 2007)

Advantages & Disadvantages:

Through obtaining and analyzing individual experiences method can identify problems in the system and propose solutions. But because the method is so heavily reliant on human abilities, such as memory, ability to communicate and being truthful, and individual biases, it ends up being limited by these shortcomings. The following section underlines advantages and disadvantages of the method as it is presented in Wikipedia:


• Flexible method that can be used to improve multi-user systems.
• Data is collected from the respondent’s perspective and in his or her own words.
• Does not force the respondents into any given framework.
• Identifies even rare events that might be missed by other methods which only focus on common and everyday events.
• Useful when problems occur but the cause and severity are not known.
• Inexpensive and provides rich information.
• Emphasizes the features that will make a system particularly vulnerable and can bring major benefits (e.g. safety).
• Can be applied using questionnaires or interviews.


• A first problem comes from the type of the reported incidents. The critical incident technique will rely on events being remembered by users and will also require the accurate and truthful reporting of them. Since critical incidents often rely on memory, incidents may be imprecise or may even go unreported.
• The method has a built-in bias towards incidents that happened recently, since these are easier to recall.
• It will emphasize only rare events; more common events will be missed.
• Respondents may not be accustomed to or willing to take the time to tell (or write) a complete story when describing a critical incident.

Examples in medical informatics:

• Yen-Chiao Lu, MS, RN, et al., Why Don’t Physicians Use Their Personal Digital Assistants? AMIA Annu Symp Proc. 2003; 2003: 405–409.
• Christina Ölvingson, Niklas Hallberga, Toomas Timpkaa, and Robert A. Greenesc, Using the critical incident technique to define a minimal data set for requirements elicitation in public health. International Journal of Medical Informatics Volume 68, Issues 1-3, 18 December 2002, Pages 165-174

Prepared by Nick Nepochatov for BMI560, Winter 2008