A brief history of cognitive walkthroughs

A cognitive walkthrough is a usability testing method in which designers ask key questions and work through the tasks of their intended user to identify how usable their product is. Cognitive walkthroughs essentially task a UX designer with walking a mile in their user’s shoes; they will help you ensure that your interface is easy to use for anyone interacting with it for the very first time, and to ensure your future users are able to realize their end goal.

In 1989, cognitive scientist Don Norman published “The Psychology of Everyday Things,” which posited that any error that a user makes when using an interface is the fault of the design, and not of the user. (In future publishings, the book was renamed “The Design of Everyday Things”).

In the book, Norman outlines the “Seven stages of action” that a person passes through whenever they set out to do anything at all.

  1. Goal-setting
  2. Intention to act
  3. Planning how to act
  4. Action
  5. Perception of action’s impact
  6. Interpretation of the perception
  7. Evaluation of the interpretation

The four stages we are particularly interested in during a cognitive walkthrough are numbers 2-5. Five years later, in 1994, a group of academics (Cathleen Wharton, John Rieman, Clayton Lewis, and Peter Polson) published a paper, introducing the method to the design world.

In the earlier stages of design, it can be difficult to justify spending the resources on user testing with real users that are external to your organization. Even though this kind of testing is valuable at any stage, it’s often not absolutely necessary in order to evaluate usability. Enter: cognitive walkthroughs!

Preparing for the cognitive walkthrough

A cognitive walkthrough describes the process of putting yourself (or members of your team or organization) in the shoes of a first-time user of the interface you are designing. 

Prior to beginning the walkthrough, you should have on-hand clear documentation of the user’s ‘happy path,’ or the ideal path the user should follow to achieve their goal, already prototyped. (You may discover usability issues with your interface during the process of documenting the happy path, which you should probably resolve to the best of your ability before you proceed with the cognitive walkthrough). 

The happy path can be divided into steps, starting with the user’s intention to complete the step, and ending with any feedback that your interface supplies to the user indicating that the step is complete.

After you’ve documented the happy path, you should decide which user persona’s perspective you will be evaluating from, and the user’s end goal for the path you are evaluating. 

All of the four questions you’ll be asking can be answered “yes” or “no.” You should lay out your notes in a simple grid, one for each step along the happy path, following the cognitive walkthrough example below:

Will the user try to achieve the right effect?▢ Yes    ▢ No   
Will the user notice that the correct action is available?▢ Yes    ▢ No   
Will the user associate the correct action with the effect that the user is trying to achieve?▢ Yes    ▢ No   
Will the user see that progress is being made toward the solution of the task?▢ Yes    ▢ No   

Conducting a cognitive walkthrough 

Next, carefully walk through your prototype, answering the four key questions as you go. At the end of the exercise, you will have a list of actionables to bring back to your design team and apply to the prototypes.

1. Will the user try to achieve the right effect?

I wouldn’t open my banking app to send a message to a friend, and I wouldn’t open a search engine to look for my friend’s phone number. This first question is very basic — is it reasonable to expect that the user will recognize your product as the one that can help them accomplish their goal? Is it reasonable to expect that the user will even make it to the point of opening your app or loading your design on their screen? Is your walkthrough starting in the right place?

2. Will the user notice that the correct action is available?

…or, in other words, “Is the first step obvious enough?” In order to begin a task, the first step must be visible on the interface, or at least very intuitive to locate. 

3. Will the user associate the correct action with the effect that the user is trying to achieve?

The button may be visible, but will the user recognize it as the one they need to use? You can always run a heuristic evaluation of your interface to determine how your users may be used to finding or recognizing elements in a prototype – usually labels like “Add,” “Edit,” or “Start” are helpful to adopt, and to keep an eye out for during your walkthrough. 

4. Will the user see that progress is being made toward the solution of the task?

This question is about feedback, and should be asked at the end of each step on the happy path. How will your user be able to tell that they can move on to the next step? What sort of feedback does your interface give to indicate that the task has been completed? 

At this time, you should also evaluate your error messages. If the user strays from the happy path you have set forth, how are they guided back to the correct next action? How can the user undo their previous action, cancel it, or return to the start?

Selecting your walking buddies

Designers can get quite attached to their prototypes, and have usually spent quite a while thinking through each element of the interface. When you’re deciding who should complete the cognitive walkthrough, it would behoove you to select the most objective person you can find — someone who does not have any attachment or aversion to any specific elements of your interface. 

Imagination, empathy, and objectivity are the most important traits to apply to this method, and these traits can be found across organizations. This can be a great opportunity to bring non-designers into the design process, and could even be leveraged as an empathy training activity in collaboration with HR (hint, hint)! In addition to its value as a low-cost, time-efficient usability testing method, cognitive walkthroughs help participants practice putting themselves in other people’s shoes. 

And that is really what UX design is all about.