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Critical Incident Technique (CIT)


Critical Incident Technique (CIT) is a form of criterion sampling. [Patton, 2002] CIT relies upon interviews of subjects who fall into a defined category or categories and who carry out defined work tasks. Recurring interview topics are recorded as incidents, and the incidents are analyzed so to develop a psychological profile of the subjects. The goal of CIT research is to understand the weaknesses involved with a particular task and to provide solutions to resolve those weaknesses. [Wikipedia, 2007]


According to Wikipedia, CIT was first developed in the 1930s but wasn’t used extensively until the 1950s. [Wikipedia, 2007] Interested in learning the differences between effective and ineffective work habits among aviators, Colonel John C. Flanagan used CIT in his work for the Aviation Psychology Program. Flanagan “argue[d] argues that the collection and examination of critical incidents can be a valid alternative to the objective observation of practice.” [Aveyard & Woolliams, 2005]

Principal Use

It is reported that the CIT method is primarily used in “organizational devlopment” [Wikipedia, 2007] to investigate organizational roles and “problems”, market and service research so to understand user impressions of service satisfaction, sofware development to gauge end-user impressions, [, 2006] and CIT has also been used in understanding “information seeking behaviour” [Wikipedia, 2007]. The method has been used in understanding issues related to health care “where direct examination of clinical staff and researchers can help them better understand their roles and help them solve practical problems” within the workplace. [Wikipedia, 2007]


CIT provides a flexible method for obtaining stories of people’s personal experiences as related to specific incidents. Wikipedia [Wikipedia, 2007] succinctly lists CIT’s advantages as well as disadvantages (next section):
· 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.

Disadvantages · 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 Informatics

· Aveyard, H. and M. Woolliams, In whose best interests? Nurses' experiences of the administration of sedation in general medical wards in England: An application of the critical incident technique. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 2006. 43(8): p. 929-939.

· Smith, A.F., et al., Adverse events in anaesthetic practice: qualitative study of definition, discussion and reporting. British Journal of Anaesthesia, 2006. 96(6): p. 715-21.

· Wolf, Z.R. and P.R. Zuzelo, "Never Again" Stories of Nurses: Dilemmas in Nursing Practice. Qual Health Res, 2006. 16: p. 1191-1206.

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