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Cognitive Walkthrough in UX Design: Key Steps and Questions

What is cognitive walkthrough in UX design and why is it important? Learn all you need to know about this inexpensive but highly effective UX evaluation method.

Written by RamotionMay 3, 202312 min read

Last updated: Feb 22, 2024

One of the most important concerns for UI/UX designers is the evaluation of a design. The process of designing interactive systems is critical, but it does not mark the end of the design process. It is important to evaluate the usability and usefulness of a design and to understand the areas of improvement, so the final design meets the needs of the target audience. Evaluation is a tricky process, in that it requires a lot of resources and constant feedback from the users.

When it comes to complex user interfaces, the evaluation process gets even more important and demands more resources. This is where designers have to think of ways to cut down costs without compromising user experience. UX design experts have tried and tested various usability inspection methods to test the efficacy of computing systems. From usability testing to surveys and interviews, all methods have one thing in common: finding out major usability problems and addressing the needs of the target audience. One such method in human-computer interaction is called cognitive walkthrough.

The Importance of User Journey (Wyzowl)

In this article, we introduce the concept of cognitive walkthroughs for creating effective design solutions. We list down the steps of conducting a successful walkthrough, along with important questions that a walkthrough is centered around. The article concludes by discussing the important benefits of cognitive walkthroughs in user experience design.

Read along as we introduce this unique and inexpensive method for the evaluation of user interfaces.

Introduction to cognitive walkthrough

The cognitive walkthrough method is an effective method for usability evaluation. As compared to other methods applied for human factors research, such as usability testing and heuristic evaluation, cognitive walkthroughs are easy to perform and inexpensive, thus increasing their effectiveness. The primary goal of this method is to assess the overall user journey and to identify both the good and bad aspects of the design as it aids the users in achieving their goals.

The cognitive walkthrough method was developed based on the idea of ‘cognitive jogthrough’ presented in the 1992 CHI paper by Rowley and Rhoades. The method relies on theory-based design, where the participants perform a series of tasks and scenarios to analyze the usefulness of the interface.

What is a Cognitive Walkthrough? (TestRail)

One of the most attractive aspects of cognitive walkthroughs is that this method is easily manageable, without the hassle of contacting real users and getting their feedback. Any individual, with any level of expertise and familiarity with a design, can perform a cognitive walkthrough with proper guidance. This is what makes this method easily adaptable, inexpensive, and effective at the same time.

Preparing for a cognitive walkthrough workshop

Cognitive walkthroughs are conducted in the form of workshop sessions, where participants interact with the designs in the presence of facilitators, and then share their findings. Since the process involves bringing a number of individuals together, along with an action sequence that needs to be performed carefully, it is important to put some thought into the preparation of the workshop sessions.

When preparing for a cognitive walkthrough workshop, it is important to keep an eye on the goals of the product or service, along with the type of participants selected to take part in the workshop.

Preparing for a Cognitive Walkthrough Workshop

The key steps for a cognitive walkthrough workshop are as follows.

1. Defining the goals

The first step in the cognitive walkthrough workshop, similar to any usability evaluation process, is to clearly define the goals of the evaluation process as well as the design itself. This step is important for the evaluation of all computing systems as well as any physical interface, as the definition of goals leads to a clear description and understanding of the tasks that can be performed with the help of a product or service.

Clearly defined goals also help in highlighting the key aspects of the user journey, thus adding to the understanding of users’ motivations. With the help of these goals, it becomes easier for designers to shortlist the metrics that can be used to assess the quality of a design.

2. Selecting the right participants

The next important step in cognitive walkthroughs, similar to usability testing, is to select the right participants who can be a part of the workshop sessions. The best way to start this recruitment process is by creating personas that cover the needs of most users. Inclusive personas serve as a great starting point in finding the right audience. However, it must be noted that for cognitive walkthroughs, the participants don't need to be real users. Similar to heuristic evaluation, designers and UX experts can participate in the workshop sessions, proving even more effective in the process.

3. Assigning appropriate roles

Once the participants are shortlisted, it is then important to assign roles to the group of participants performing cognitive walkthroughs. There are four important roles in a cognitive walkthrough workshop. These include

  • Facilitator: To moderate and organize the workshop.
  • Presenter: To make the design artifact available and visible to all the participants.
  • Recorder: To observe and record activities in the workshop.
  • Evaluators: To interact with the design and actively participate in the walkthrough.

Roles in a Cognitive Walkthrough Workshop

4. Establishing the rules

The last, but equally important, step in organizing a cognitive walkthrough workshop is to set some rules for the participants. Rules are important as these ensure that the participants are always focused on the design at hand, and use the interface to perform their tasks as they would in a real-world environment. Important rules include a dedicated focus on the design; leaving the mobile phone, laptops, and other technologies aside; and the fact that participants only have to interact with the design and answer specific questions, without justifying their steps or outcomes.

Conducting the cognitive walkthrough

The success of a cognitive walkthrough session is highly dependent on the action sequence that the designers and researchers have to follow. The walkthrough methodology follows a series of steps starting with briefing the participants and leading up to the observations that can then help in getting valuable design insights.

The following steps can be considered as a practitioner's guide to conducting a cognitive walkthrough workshop.

1. Briefing the participants

The first step in the action sequences of a cognitive walkthrough session is to brief the participants about the entire process. The participants in the sessions may not have gone through a cognitive walkthrough session before, so it is important to give a quick overview of the process. This step involves an introduction of the tasks and the functionalities of the interface, particularly when dealing with more complex user interfaces. More often than not, researchers build a sample task to give the participants a true sense of what is expected.

2. Reviewing the product goals

The next step of the cognitive walkthrough process is to review the product goals. This step is important both for designers as well as the participants as they move ahead to interact with the interface. Reviewing the product goals is important as this step can help in staying focused throughout the walkthrough, making sure that the purpose of the originally designed interface does not get overlooked. It is also important to keep the user goals in mind, as they participate in the cognitive walkthrough.

3. Understanding the customer personas

Along with the product goals, it is also critical to know the users better. As cognitive walkthrough does not require direct interaction with, and feedback from, real users, it becomes more important to develop detailed user personas to understand their goals in a better way. The personas should include all the important details such as a hypothetical user name, their goals and motivations, and their challenges as they interact with your product.

Understanding Customer Personas (Sellbrite)

4. Introducing a task

After an overview of the product, the interface, and the user goals, it is now time to move to a cognitive walkthrough workshop proper. This is where designers start introducing specific tasks to the participants, presented in the form of scenarios. A typical task description detail is provided as a real-world scenario, giving participants enough understanding but not enlisting a specific series of steps to accomplish the task. The participants can interact with the interface, come across breakpoints, and then share their findings.

5. Walking through the task

Once the task is introduced, the participants have the option to ask any questions. After the clarifications, the participants then start accomplishing the tasks with the help of the interface. This step is where the participants truly walk through the interface, from one point to the next in the user journey. The researchers take frequent notes to make a participant’s action visible with the help of words and interpretations.

6. Taking notes and observing the performance

The researchers play the role of observers and facilitators while the participants are interacting with the interface to perform a series of tasks. Throughout these action sequences, researchers need to take notes and listen to the participants, making sure that their actions, words, and thoughts are recorded in the best way possible. These findings can then help in design recommendations.

The top questions of cognitive walkthroughs

One of the significant aspects of cognitive walkthroughs is that it is a structured and methodical approach, with one action sequence following the other. This approach helps in giving a good flow to the process and adds value to the findings as well. Based on the findings from any practitioner’s guide to usability evaluation, the following are the four important questions critical to a cognitive walkthrough.

Will the user try to achieve the right results?

This question helps in identifying the gaps between the users’ expectations about the interface and the other way around. This is a good start to identify the assumptions being made about the users’ level of expertise that may or may not be accurate.

Will the user notice that the correct action is available to them?

This question focuses on the visibility of system affordances that can then guide the users to the correct action. The presence of features and affordances is rendered useless if the users do not notice them or cannot use them in the correct sequence.

Will the user associate the correct action with the result they expect to achieve?

It is important that the identification of the correct action is also associated with the expected results. This question explores if the user can understand the purpose of an affordance and use it appropriately, as expected during the design process.

After performing the action, will the user see that progress is being made toward their goal?

This question focuses on the importance of a single action in the holistic user experience. When users perform a particular action, it is effective only if the overall user’s goal is met to some extent with the help of this action. It is important that the interface gives quick feedback in a way that the users understand the progress made toward the goal.

User Flow and Cognitive Walkthrough (Anima)

Benefits of cognitive walkthroughs

A cognitive walkthrough is a very effective method in human-computer interaction and UX design. The walkthrough methodology is an excellent way of getting the user's perspective without spending too much time and resources on recruiting real users. Researchers working on the design of interactive systems in the industry need more methods, such as applying cognitive walkthroughs, where the desired objectives can be achieved in a comprehensive and less-expensive manner. Compared to some other methods, like heuristic evaluation and usability testing, the cognitive walkthrough can prove to be an effective process, particularly when the resources are minimal and the designs are highly complicated.

Some of the most important benefits of cognitive walkthroughs are as follows.

No need to recruit real users

The best aspect of cognitive walkthroughs, for designers and researchers, is that they do not have to go through the rigorous process of recruiting users for usability evaluation. Participants with different levels of expertise, including new users as well as UX practitioners, can take part in the walkthrough, and provide valuable feedback.

Identification of usability issues

Cognitive walkthrough, like other evaluation methods in human factors and UX design, is important in identifying usability problems. This method is most suitable for complex systems and prototypes where getting new users is always a challenge, and the design is not so well-developed to get a comprehensive understanding of users’ behaviors, perceptions, and attitudes.

Identifying Usability Issues (Eficode)

Overview of the user journey

With the help of the cognitive walkthrough method, designers can get a really good sense of the user's goals and the steps they take to accomplish them. Understanding the user journey is critical to the success of any interface, and a walkthrough gives an overview of this journey, that too in a real-world context.

Inexpensive method

Cognitive walkthrough workshops are quite inexpensive to conduct. Since the sessions can be conducted by recruiting participants from within the organization, and even the design team itself, there is no need to bring external participants and compensate them. Additionally, this evaluation can be repeated at different stages of the design process, without having to go through complex setups such as those required for A/B testing. The method, overall, helps in getting great results by spending little resources.


A cognitive walkthrough is an efficient method of conducting usability evaluation. It is one of the most manageable and comprehensive ways to understand the usability problems of a design, along with ways to improve the user experience, particularly focusing on the flow of the user journey. Quite often, designers find it hard to put a finger on the breakpoints in the user journey, particularly when a design is created for new users.

Cognitive walkthroughs can help in the identification of these breakpoints. When participants become a part of a cognitive walkthrough workshop, they go through every step of the user journey, keeping the end goal in mind. This is an excellent way of taking a holistic approach to user experience design.

In this article, we covered some key concepts about cognitive walkthroughs and the steps to conduct such usability evaluation workshops. When working on complicated UI/UX design projects, professionals need to have a thorough understanding of methods such as cognitive walkthroughs, so they save the resources of the organization and also add value to the overall design process.

If you are an aspiring designer, learning about theory-based approaches to UX design, such as cognitive walkthroughs, can help you enhance your knowledge and skills, making you a good fit for the job market.