What is Cognitive Walkthrough? Methods and Example

What is cognitive walkthrough? Methods and examples

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Embarking on a journey to create user-friendly products involves more than just intuitive design. It requires a deep understanding of user interactions. This is where cognitive walkthrough come into play. 

By simulating user tasks step-by-step, this method allows UX designers to anticipate how users navigate interfaces and identify potential usability hurdles. 

In this blog, we will delve into the essence of cognitive walkthrough UX-  what they are, how to conduct a cognitive walkthrough, and why they are indispensable in crafting digital experiences that resonate seamlessly with user expectations.

Meaning of cognitive walkthrough

Cognitive walkthroughs are a structured approach to evaluating user interfaces, emphasizing how well the design supports the user’s cognitive processes. 

This cognitive method involves role-playing users’ thought processes while navigating the interface to accomplish tasks. 

Evaluators ask questions such as, “Will the user know what to do at this step?” and “Will the user understand the feedback provided by the system?” 

This helps to identify areas where users might struggle or become confused, leading to actionable insights for improving the design.

You may like to read about the history of cognitive walkthrough

Key concepts of cognitive walkthrough UX

  1. Goal: The primary aim is to evaluate an interface’s usability by understanding how intuitive and learnable it is for new users.
  2. Simulated user tasks: Evaluators simulate a new user’s process for completing a task. They consider the user’s goals, actions, and feedback provided by the system at each step.
  3. Heuristic evaluation: The cognitive method is guided by heuristics or questions that help evaluators determine whether the interface effectively supports the user’s actions and goals.

Let us better understand the meaning of cognitive walkthrough with cognitive walkthrough examples.

Cognitive walkthrough examples

Example 1: E-commerce website

Consider an e-commerce website where users need to find and purchase a product. During a cognitive walkthrough, evaluators might simulate the following tasks:

  1. Searching for a particular product using the search bar.
  2. Adding the product to the shopping cart.
  3. Proceeding to checkout.
  4. Entering shipping and payment information.
  5. Confirming the purchase.

Example 2: Mobile banking app

Another cognitive walkthrough example will be designing a new mobile banking application. Imagine a team that wants to ensure users can efficiently complete critical tasks such as checking their account balance, transferring money, and paying bills. 

During a cognitive walkthrough, evaluators would:

  1. Define the user persona, such as a first-time user of mobile banking.
  2. Outline the key tasks, like logging in, navigating to the balance check feature, and executing a transfer.
  3. Simulate these tasks, noting any difficulties or confusion encountered along the way.
  4. Transferring money between accounts.
  5. Paying a bill.
  6. Setting up a recurring payment.

Check the research paper on cognitive walkthrough to learn more about this research method.

Benefits of conducting a cognitive walkthrough

Improved usability

Cognitive walkthroughs help identify usability issues early in the design process, allowing for adjustments that enhance user experience. By focusing on the user’s perspective, designers can create interfaces that are easier to navigate and understand.

Early detection of issues

This method allows for the early detection of potential problems before the product reaches users. By addressing issues during the design phase, developers can save time and resources needed for post-launch fixes.

Focus on user goals

Cognitive walkthroughs emphasize user goals and tasks, ensuring the design supports the user’s objectives. This user-centered approach leads to more effective and satisfying interactions.

Systematic evaluation

The structured nature of cognitive walkthroughs provides a systematic approach to usability evaluation. This ensures that all aspects of the interface are thoroughly examined, leaving no stone unturned.

Enhanced learning

Cognitive walkthroughs give valuable insights into how users engage with the interface by simulating the user’s thought processes. This helps designers understand user behavior and make informed design decisions.

When to conduct a cognitive walkthrough?

A cognitive walkthrough UX is best conducted at various stages of the design and development process to maximize its benefits. Here are the times when a cognitive walkthrough is particularly valuable:

Early design stages

Before development:

Purpose: To evaluate initial design concepts and prototypes.

Benefits: Identifies potential usability issues early, allowing for changes before significant resources are invested in development.

During development

Iterative testing:

Purpose: To continually assess the usability of the system as it evolves.

Benefits: It provides ongoing feedback and allows for iterative improvements and refinements.

Before major releases

Pre-launch evaluation:

Purpose: To ensure the end product is user-friendly and ready for launch.

Benefits: It catches any last-minute usability issues that could affect the user experience.

Post-launch

Continuous improvement:

Purpose: To identify areas for future enhancements and updates.

Benefits: It helps maintain and improve the usability of the product over time.

When introducing new features

Feature-specific evaluation:

Purpose: To assess the usability of new features or functionalities.

Benefits: It ensures new features integrate well with the existing system and are easy for users to adopt.

In response to user feedback

Addressing usability issues:

Purpose: To investigate and resolve specific usability problems reported by users.

Benefits: It provides a targeted approach to improving the user experience based on real user feedback.

Hence, conducting a cognitive walkthrough UX at various stages of the design and development process ensures that usability is continuously evaluated and improved, leading to a more user-friendly and successful product.

You may like to check out this video to understand how cognitive walkthroughs help assess interface learnability

Who should conduct the walkthrough?

Cognitive walkthroughs ideally involve diverse stakeholders to provide a well-rounded evaluation of the user interface from different perspectives. 

Here are the key individuals who should be involved:

Usability experts

Role: Facilitate the cognitive walkthrough process, guide the team through the evaluation steps, and apply their knowledge of usability principles.

Benefits: Provide expertise in identifying usability issues and suggesting improvements based on best practices.

Designers

Role: Participate in the walkthrough to understand how their design decisions impact the user experience.

Benefits: Gain direct feedback on design elements, helping them make informed adjustments to improve usability.

Developers

Role: Involved in understanding the feasibility of suggested changes and seeing how users might interact with the technical aspects of the system.

Benefits: Ensure that usability issues are addressed in a technically feasible manner and that the development team is aligned with the usability goals.

Product managers

Role: Provide insights into user goals and business objectives, ensuring the product aligns with the overall strategy.

Benefits: Help prioritize usability issues based on their impact on user satisfaction and business outcomes.

User researchers

Role: Bring knowledge about user behaviors, preferences, and pain points to the evaluation process.

Benefits: Provide user-centered insights that ensure the walkthrough is grounded in real user needs and contexts.

Subject matter experts 

Role: Offer domain-specific knowledge that can help understand specialized user tasks and workflows.

Benefits: Ensure that the interface meets the specific needs of users in particular industries or fields.

Actual or representative users

Role: Participate to provide a real-world perspective on the interface’s usability.

Benefits: Offer direct feedback on how intuitive and user-friendly the system is for its intended audience.

Quality assurance testers

Role: Identify potential bugs and issues that could affect usability.

Benefits: Ensure that both functional and usability issues are addressed comprehensively.

How to conduct a cognitive walkthrough?

Conducting a cognitive walkthrough involves a systematic approach to evaluating the usability of a user interface by simulating users’ actions and thought processes. 

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to conduct a cognitive walkthrough UX effectively:

Preparation

Identify tasks: Select key tasks that users typically perform with the interface.

Create scenarios: Develop detailed scenarios that describe the context in which each task occurs, including the user’s goals and motivations.

Assemble the team: Gather diverse stakeholders, including designers, developers, usability experts, and potentially actual or representative users.

Walkthrough process

Task-by-task evaluation: Start with the first task scenario. Each team member should individually complete the task as if they were a new user.

Ask critical questions: At each step of the task, ask the following questions:

  1. Will the user understand that they need to perform this action?
  2. Will the user know what to do to complete the action?
  3. Will the user be able to see that the action they performed is correct and progresses towards their goal?

Evaluate feedback and system responses:

  1. Consider how the system provides feedback to the user at each step:
  2. Does the system provide clear feedback that confirms the user’s actions and progress?
  3. Is the feedback understandable and helpful in guiding the user towards their goal?

Documentation

Record observations:

  1. Document any issues or potential improvements identified during the walkthrough. Use a structured format to capture:
  2. The specific step or interaction where the issue occurred.
  3. The nature of the issue (e.g., confusing instructions, unclear feedback).
  4. Suggestions for improvement or notes on what worked well.

Prioritize issues: Prioritize the identified usability issues based on their impact on the user experience, feasibility of implementation, and alignment with user goals.

Post-walkthrough analysis

Debrief and discuss findings:

  1. Convene a meeting or discussion to review the documented observations.
  2. Discuss insights gained from the walkthrough and collaborate on potential solutions or next steps.

Iterative improvement:

  1. Incorporate the findings from the cognitive walkthrough into the design and development process.
  2. Use the insights to iterate on the ui, making adjustments to enhance usability based on the prioritized issues.

By following these steps, a cognitive walkthrough can provide valuable insights into the usability of a UI, helping to create a more intuitive and user-friendly experience for your target audience.

Challenges in cognitive walkthrough

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Limited user representation

Cognitive walkthroughs rely on user personas, which may not fully represent the diversity of the target audience. this can lead to incomplete assessments and overlooked issues.

Incomplete task analysis

If tasks are not thoroughly analyzed, important usability issues may be missed. It is crucial to break down tasks into detailed steps and consider all possible user interactions.

Evaluator expertise

The effectiveness of a cognitive walkthrough depends on the expertise of the evaluators. inexperienced evaluators may miss essential issues or provide inaccurate assessments.

Resource intensive

Cognitive walkthroughs can be resource-intensive, requiring time and effort from multiple stakeholders. this can be a challenge for projects with limited resources.

Contextual limitations

Cognitive walkthroughs are conducted in a controlled environment, which may not fully replicate real-world usage. This can limit the accuracy of the findings.

What is cognitive walkthrough vs. heuristic evaluation?

While both cognitive walkthroughs and heuristic evaluations are usability evaluation methods, they have distinct differences. 

Cognitive walkthroughs focus on the user’s thought processes and task completion, simulating user interactions to identify potential issues. 

On the other hand, heuristic evaluations involve experts evaluating the interface against a set of established usability principles (heuristics). 

Heuristic evaluations are generally quicker and less resource-intensive but may not provide the same depth of insights into user behavior as cognitive walkthroughs.

Learn more about heuristic evaluation in UX design

What is cognitive walkthrough vs. usability testing?

Cognitive walkthroughs and usability testing are user-centered evaluation methods but differ in their approach. 

Cognitive walkthroughs are conducted by experts who simulate user interactions, while usability testing involves real users interacting with the product. 

Usability testing provides direct feedback from actual users, offering insights into real-world usage and user satisfaction. 

Cognitive walkthroughs, however, allow for a more controlled and systematic analysis of specific tasks and cognitive processes.

Conclusion

Cognitive walkthroughs UX are invaluable for enhancing user interface usability by simulating user thought processes and identifying potential usability issues early on. 

At Octet, we specialize in conducting detailed walkthroughs throughout the design and development phases to guarantee that your end product meets and exceeds user expectations. For instance, we recently conducted a cognitive walkthrough example for a client’s e-commerce platform, pinpointing navigation bottlenecks and refining the checkout process. 

By optimizing task flows and aligning design decisions with user behaviors, we ensure a positive user experience that fosters satisfaction and loyalty.

Common cognitive walkthrough questions

1. How to run a cognitive walkthrough?

To run a cognitive walkthrough, define the goals and objectives, select representative tasks, identify user personas, gather materials, role-play the user, analyze tasks, document observations, and evaluate feedback. 

Compile the findings, provide recommendations, create a report, share with stakeholders, implement changes, verify improvements, and iterate as needed.

2. Who are the participants in a cognitive walkthrough?

Participants in a cognitive walkthrough typically include usability experts, designers, developers, and other stakeholders familiar with the product and its intended users.

3. What is the walkthrough technique?

The walkthrough technique involves analyzing user interactions with the interface step by step, simulating user thought processes, and identifying potential usability issues. 

This strategy focuses on the cognitive components of user experience and delivers insights to help improve design.

4. What are different cognitive methods?

Different cognitive methods, such as cognitive walkthroughs, cognitive interviews, and think-aloud protocols, are used to study how people think, process information, and make decisions. Cognitive walkthroughs analyze user interactions step-by-step to identify usability issues. 

Cognitive interviews probe users’ thought processes during tasks, while think-aloud protocols involve users verbalizing thoughts as they navigate interfaces. 

These cognitive methods provide valuable insights into user cognition, helping designers optimize products to better align with user mental models and improve usability and user experience.

Read next on:

What is contextual inquiry? Definition and example

What is participatory design? Learn how to conduct it.

What is journey mapping? User journey maps meaning and types

Creative Director and Founder of Octet Design Studio- Aakash Jethwani
Aakash Jethwani

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