A cognitive task analysis of a visual analytic workflow: Exploring molecular interaction networks in systems biology


  • Barbara Mirel University of Michigan
  • Felix Eichinger University of Michigan
  • Benjamin J Keller Eastern Michigan University
  • Matthias Kretzler University of Michigan




Background: Bioinformatics visualization tools are often not robust enough to support biomedical specialists’ complex exploratory analyses. Tools need to accommodate the workflows that scientists actually perform for specific translational research questions. To understand and model one of these workflows, we conducted a case-based, cognitive task analysis of a biomedical specialist’s exploratory workflow for the question: What functional interactions among gene products of high throughput expression data suggest previously unknown mechanisms of a disease? Results: From our cognitive task analysis four complementary representations of the targeted workflow were developed. They include: usage scenarios, flow diagrams, a cognitive task taxonomy, and a mapping between cognitive tasks and user-centered visualization requirements. The representations capture the flows of cognitive tasks that led a biomedical specialist to inferences critical to hypothesizing. We created representations at levels of detail that could strategically guide visualization development, and we confirmed this by making a trial prototype based on user requirements for a small portion of the workflow. Conclusions: Our results imply that visualizations should make available to scientific users “bundles of features” consonant with the compositional cognitive tasks purposefully enacted at specific points in the workflow. We also highlight certain aspects of visualizations that: (a) need more built-in flexibility; (b) are critical for negotiating meaning; and (c) are necessary for essential metacognitive support.

Author Biography

Barbara Mirel, University of Michigan

Director of Education and Evaluation, National Center of Integrative Biomedical Infomratics (NCIBI) Research Associate Scientist School of Education University of Michigan




How to Cite

Mirel, B., Eichinger, F., Keller, B. J., & Kretzler, M. (2011). A cognitive task analysis of a visual analytic workflow: Exploring molecular interaction networks in systems biology. DISCO: Journal of Biomedical Discovery and Collaboration, 6, 1–33. https://doi.org/10.5210/disco.v6i0.3410