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Cognitive Walkthroughs

User research resources for beginners and pros

What is a cognitive walkthrough?

Cognitive walkthroughs are used to evaluate a product’s usability. It focuses on the new user’s perspective by narrowing the scope to tasks needed to complete specific user goals. It was created in the early 90’s by Cathleen Wharton, John Rieman, Clayton Lewis, Peter Polson.

Cognitive walkthroughs are sometimes confused with heuristic evaluations, but, while both methods uncover usability problems and take the users’ point of view, heuristic evaluations typically focus on the the product as a whole, not specific tasks.

How to conduct a cognitive walkthrough

At its core, a cognitive walkthrough has three parts:

  1. Identify the user goal you want to examine
  2. Identify the tasks you must complete to accomplish that goal
  3. Document the experience while completing the tasks

Identifying the user goal

A user goal is a big, overarching objective and doesn’t include specific, step-by-step tasks. From a user’s point-of-view, it doesn’t necessarily matter how the goal is accomplished, as long as it gets completed.

For example, I host a dinner party every month. Beforehand, I ask everyone invited to send me 10 songs they love. Then, I use Spotify to create a playlist of those songs to play during the party. As a user, my goal here is to create a playlist with others to play at my dinner party.

Identifying the tasks

I’ll note here I’ll only be walking through one possible path of accomplishing these goals. Spotify has a number of ways to accomplish these goals. Ideally, you’d identify the optimal path and tasks for each interface. However, in this article, I’ll only be walking through one path.

Goal: Create a Playlist

  • Open Spotify web player
  • Enter user name in user name field
  • Enter password in password field
  • Click the login button
  • Click the your library section
  • Click the new playlist button
  • Type a name into the playlist name field
  • Click the create button

Goal: Add a track to the playlist

  • Click search icon
  • Enter track name into the field
  • Click tracks tab
  • Find track in results
  • Hover over track
  • Click “…”
  • Click “add to playlist”
  • Select playlist

Documenting the experience

Since experience is subjective, it’s important to structure how an evaluator documents it so that all walkthroughs use the same criteria. Traditionally, the evaluator asks/answers four questions during each task.

  • Will users understand how to start the task?
  • Are the controls conspicuous?
  • Will users know the control is the correct one?
  • Was there feedback to indicate you completed (or did not complete) the task?

However, I like to add an additional question to specify task completion. I add this question because it allows anyone to easily find those tasks that stop users from completing their goal. Often, these tasks become the highest priority and need to be addressed first.

  • Were you able to complete the task?

Template

I’ve created a walkthrough template for the above Spotify example. For each task, answer each question with a yes or no. The worksheet will color code answers for you so that a briefly scan will quickly reveal the problem areas.

Download the Cognitive Walkthrough Template

And those are the basics of a cognitive walkthrough! Good luck!

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Thoughts on User Experience Research Methods, Lean UX, and User-Centered Design

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