Critical Incident Technique: What It is and How It is Used

“The Critical Incident Technique (TIC) is a qualitative research method that has been used since the first half of the 20th century.”


“The Critical Incident Technique (CIT) is a qualitative research method that has been used since the first half of the 20th century.”

It is a tool that is currently used to evaluate experiences and behaviors in different areas, ranging from marketing to nursing.

Specifically, the Critical Incident Technique has been useful to evaluate the provision of services. In this article we will see what the Critical Incident Technique is, how it arose and in what way it can be applied.

What is the Critical Incident Technique?

While it is a qualitative research technique, the critical incident technique seeks to understand and represent the experiences and actions of people in their own environment, in situations that occur in everyday life. That is to say, that beyond testing hypotheses, the qualitative technique consists of exploring a research problem, which will ultimately allow hypotheses to be formulated.

It is an anecdotal evidence collection tool that has been systematized in an important way to build scientific knowledge.

Its origins

As a research technique, CIT was first described in 1954 by the American psychologist John C. Flanagan. The latter defined it as a set of procedures to collect direct observations of human behavior, whose objective is to favor the potential of these observations for the resolution of problems.

In other words, according to Flanagan, qualitative research based on observation and the anecdotal record can be systematized in such a way as to understand a phenomenon and offer answers to possible problems.

The first time the Critical Incident Technique was used in a systematic way, it was within the US aviation services in the context of the Second World War. Specifically, it served to evaluate the activity of the pilots.

The reports made through the CIT gave a much more complete idea about the effective and ineffective behavior of the pilots. Specifically, the technique allowed analyzing the events that determined the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the behaviors (the events that marked a difference between whether it was effective or not). These events were called “critical incidents”.

“After the Second World War this technique was expanded to evaluate services and activities of many other types.”

The 5 stages of the Critical Incident Technique

Flanagan developed five steps that are necessary at the time of using the critical incident technique. These steps are those that are generally used in many of the qualitative research techniques based on observation and anecdotal data; The difference is that ICT pays special attention to the incidents that are considered to be decisive for the occurrence of a specific situation, behavior or phenomenon.

The five steps that were defined by Flanagan are the following.

1. Identify the main objectives

The first is to formulate a research question, from which the main objectives of the observation are presented. For example, an objective may be to analyze the needs of travelers based on knowing their tasks and activities. Or, know the critical incidents to generate socialization and business adaptability in a specific work environment.

2. Generate a procedure

Afterwards, it is necessary to outline the specific steps of action. It is about determining which are the concrete situations that will be observed. Also recognize that the incidents can be positive or negative and it is necessary to determine which ones will be evaluated. Likewise, define who and how many observers and informants will be, generally trying to make people familiar with the environment to observe.

3. Collect data

The data can be collected in different ways. For example, it can be collected through group or individual interviews, questionnaires, surveys, or opinion forms. If it is a direct observation, it is necessary to report all the observed incidents as soon as possible to ensure that it is reliable and accurate. A collection of around 100 critical incidents is considered significant.

4. Analyze the data

Once the data has been collected, the next step is to analyze it. This means describing and translating them in a way that allows us to use them to solve problems. The data can be analyzed in relation to a theoretical framework related to the observed environment and the objectives of the observation, or they can be presented through different categories to identify different problems and solutions.

5. Interpret and report results

Finally, since the data have been analyzed and have been organized with a coherence that is related to the objectives of the observation, it is necessary to identify the potentialities and also the imitations of the research.

This last stage consists of generating a general report whose language is adapted to the target audience, highlighting the parts that allow us to use the data to understand a particular phenomenon and offer solutions to their problems. For ICT it is very important to maintain transparency and clarity when reporting the results and conclusions obtained.


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