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Cognitive Walkthrough

A Cognitive Walkthrough is an internal usability evaluation. Product team members are tasked with “thinking like users” when examining their product’s interface. The designer walks the team through use scenarios, following the expected “Happy Path”; at each step of the task, the team questions the clarity of communication between the interface and the user. This evaluation is based on cognitive psychology — how people learn. The team must evaluate text labels, visual affordance, instructions, and design conventions with a brand-new user in mind.

A Cognitive Walkthrough can train your design team to think more like users; however, because no actual users are involved, the dependability of its insights is not always reliable. Its advantage is that it can be performed quickly without significant planning, but additional testing methods should be utilized.


Schedule Time

  • Preparation: 2 – 3 Hours

  • Meeting: 1 – 2 Hours

Gather Materials

  • Current version of site or app interface

  • Note-taking implements (text editing software or notebook & pen)



Determine the user base whose cognitive functions are relevant. Users will see things differently based on age, degree of relevant experience, and geographic location, so this will keep you focused. Take this step to prevent irrelevant discussion during the walkthrough.


Choose which tasks to evaluate. Since this method is used without direct user observation or research, you will need to determine these tasks based on previous research, market trends, and product requirements.


Break the tasks down into steps, and write a script for the walkthrough.

  • You (or the chosen facilitator) need to know these steps prior to the session. The walkthrough is a systematic examination of the learnability of the Happy Path, not the interface in general. The meeting should not be focused on the experience of getting lost and needing to find your way back.


Determine which team members should be present. Include a variety of subject matter experts including domain and industry experts, user experience designers, developers, writers, and business & market analysts.


At the start of the walkthrough, explain that you will only be discussing learnability, clarity, and usability. Designers must not explain or defend their design choices, and non-designers must not suggest solutions to usability issues. Solutions will be discussed after the walkthrough is complete.


The facilitator will go through the Happy Path for each task. At each step, the group should consider and discuss the answers to learnability-related questions about the interaction, for instance:

  • Will a new user know what they can do here?

  • Will this new user know if their desired goal is possible to reach from here? Will they know if it is not?

  • If the user takes the correct action and makes progress, is that fact clear to them?

  • Is it clear how much progress the user has made and how much they still need to make before their task is complete?

  • If the user performs an action that does not advance them toward their goal, is that fact clear to them?

  • Will the user know If the system encounters an error?

  • Will the user know how to correct an error, whether it is a user error or a system error?

  • Will the user know how to get help if the interface is unclear?


If the answer to any question is ”yes,” have the group discuss whether that “yes” is believable. This will unearth assumptions the team is making about their users so those assumptions can be checked for accuracy. If a “yes” is not believable, or if any question would be answered with “no,” then you have uncovered a usability issue.


Bring the UX design team together for a Brainstorming session in order to determine possible solutions.


Try these tips

  • A Cognitive Walkthrough is excellent for internationalization, since real users are difficult to find for moderated testing. Engaging an expert on a foreign culture or language helps you determine if navigation and calls to action are clear to an international user.

  • Conduct the walkthrough slowly so your participants have time to consider learnability questions. If you move through the interface too quickly, it will be similar to handholding a real user, and few if any insights will be gleaned.

  • There are several variants of the Cognitive Walkthrough wherein the questions asked at each interaction are specific. In The Cognitive Walkthrough Method by Wharton et. al. (1994), they are expressed as:Will the user try to achieve the right effect?
    Will the user notice that the correct action is available?
    Will the user associate the correct action with the effect that the user is trying to achieve?
    If the correct action is performed, will the user see that progress is being made toward the solution of the task?
    In a later guide, published in 2000 by Spencer, this is pared down to only two questions:Will the user know what to do at this step?
    If the user does the right thing, will she know that she did the right thing and is making progress toward the goal?

  • This can be a useful method for training a product team to think like users during future design processes.

  • If some team members are not available at the scheduled meeting time or the group is too large for everyone to participate at once, you can perform individual walkthroughs later.

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