Cognitive walkthrough

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What it is

An evaluation method in which evaluators work through a set of representative tasks and ask questions about the task as they go.

Reasons to use it

To get quick and early feedback on whether a design solution is easy for a new or infrequent user to learn, and why it is or isn’t easy. This method i useful for catching big issues at any stage in the design process when you don't have access to real users, but it is not a substitute for user evaluation.

Time required

Medium: 30 minutes to one hour per person

How to do it

  1. Identify specific traits for new or infrequent users of a design solution.

  2. Develop a set of representative tasks that emphasize new use or infrequent use.

  3. Designate a member of the design team to play the role of a user who has the traits you’ve identified to participate in a moderated usability testing session. (The traits can overlap.)

  4. Ask the user to accomplish their goal using a printed or interactive design. As they go, ask what they would attempt to do next or how they would learn.

    • Don't lead the user through the task, but encourage them to stay focused on what they’re trying to accomplish.
    • Pay attention to expected outcomes and how quickly/easily participants are able to pick up a task.
  5. Analyze the walkthrough results to highlight where the user struggled and what needs improvement.

Applied in government research

  • No PRA implications. The PRA explicitly exempts direct observation and non-standardized conversation (e.g., not a survey) that a cognitive walkthrough entails, 5 CFR 1320.3(h)3.
  • If you are not working with government employees, you will need to observe standard precautions for archiving personally identifiable information.

Additional resources

An explanation of cognitive walkthroughs and how to conduct one. The Usability Body of Knowledge, a product of the User Experience Professionals’ Association.