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If you are following our blogs for a time now, you would have already known that usability is an essential factor in website conversion. There are undoubtedly many strategies that can aid businesses in developing their website's learnability and usability; however, it can be challenging to conduct accurately without the help of real users from your target audience. 

In this article, Cognitive Walkthrough for Improving UX, we will discuss this usability method that is proven to overcome this challenge in usability and overcome limit bias in terms of web assessment. 

This article will also discuss the following subtopics:

What is a cognitive walkthrough

The cognitive walkthrough is a type of usability method where one or more evaluators work through a series of tasks and ask a set of questions from the user's point of view.

The focus of cognitive walkthroughs is understanding the system's learnability for new infrequent users. 

A brief history of cognitive walkthrough

We already mentioned that a cognitive walkthrough is a usability testing method where the evaluators ask a set of questions and work through the tasks of their intended users to identify how usable the product is. 

Usually, the session evaluators are members of the design team, and cognitive walkthroughs are tasked to UX designers to help them "walk" in their users' shoes to help ensure that the interface is easy to use for every user, especially for first-time users with the product or website interaction. This task is also essential to ensure that future users can realize their end goal.

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A cognitive scientist named Don Norman, who published a book in 1989 and was titled "The Psychology of Everyday Things" (now renamed to "The Design of Everyday Things," states that any error made by a user when interacting with the product is the fault of the design, and not the user. 

Norman also outlines the seven stages of action in his book. These stages of action are the steps that a person passes through whenever they set out to do anything. The seven stages of action as narrated by Norman are:

  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

Five years later, a group of academics led by Cathleen Wharton, John Rieman, Clayton Lewis, and Peter Polson published a paper introducing these stages to the design world.

In the earlier days of design, it can be challenging to prove and justify the expenses made when gathering resources for user testing session. And even though this kind of testing is significant in any stage of the design process, this is considered unnecessary in evaluating usability. 

Thus, the cognitive walkthrough is created. 

The advantages of disadvantages of cognitive walkthrough


· It can be done without first-hand access to users

· It takes explicit account of the user's task compared to other usability methods

· It provides insights and suggestions to improve usability and learnability of the system

· It can be done in any stages of the design development

· It is a quick and inexpensive method to apply if done in a streamlined form


· The data value is limited to the insights and skills of the design evaluators

· It tends to yield relative superficial and narrow analyses that are focused on words and graphics on the screen

· It only follows the method as outlined, and can be labor extensive

While there are certainly some disadvantages of using cognitive walkthroughs, these outweigh the advantages. 

One of the most significant advantages of a cognitive walkthrough is that it is highly cost-effective and fast to conduct compared to other usability testing methods.  

Also, it can be implemented before design development, which helps provide early insights even before the budget is planned or spent.

Who conducts a cognitive walkthrough?

Anyone. There is no rule on who should conduct a cognitive walkthrough. However, there may be a risk that someone who is already knowledgeable with the industry jargon, language, and system will miss things that someone who lacks familiarity would find, given that running a cognitive walkthrough is not a challenging task at all.

You can plan and prepare the tasks on hand. You can also copy the questions with attached explanations on how to use them on paper. By planning your cognitive walkthrough this way, you can easily find someone with the right perspective in your company or organization to help you properly conduct a walkthrough. 

If you know someone familiar with the product, then make sure that those individuals use personas to guide them in walking a mile in the user's shoes. 

Guide in conducting a cognitive walkthrough

A cognitive walkthrough starts with defining a task for a user to carry out. It is in these tasks that a cognitive walkthrough will be checked for usability and learnability. 

For tasks that can be performed in the product but are not included in a cognitive walkthrough will not be assessed in the process. 

We have six steps for you to follow when it comes to conducting a cognitive walkthrough:

Step 1 Defining the user base.

One of the setbacks of cognitive walkthroughs is that you have no way to see and understand the website or product through your users' perspective eyes. And the usability inspection of the product highly depends on a specific user. 

To resolve this issue, you need first to define your user base. If you already have experience developing user personas for marketing, then you also know that the users will vary based on several demographic factors, location, and niche, among many others.

So, for example, in your online marketing, you may target:

· SMEs with little knowledge and an average reading skill level, and/or

· Expert marketers who are industry professionals in their niche and can understand industry jargon

If you have two personas defined, you need to conduct a cognitive walkthrough for each persona. This is the best way to ensure your analysis matches the actual experience of these two user groups. 

Step 2 Defining user goals.

The next step is defining your user goals. This is a list of potential goals a user may have when it comes to visiting your website or using your product. 

As discussed, a cognitive walkthrough is used to evaluate the general usability and learnability of your website or product, including the following:

· Logging in

· Interacting in your forum section

· Browsing your sub-pages

Cognitive walkthroughs are also used to test your website optimization in terms of conversion-driving behaviors. So, your task is to develop goals based on your defined buyer personas. 

Here are some examples of conversion-related goals:

· User can understand the benefits of your product

· Users can learn more about your product and its features

· Users can compare your products to others like it

· Users can make a purchase

· Users can upgrade their subscription

Step 3 Knowing your "happy path".

A "happy path" is a term coined by usability testers, wherein for each user goal you want to test, you need to create a list of actions a user should take or a user see that progress is made on your website to reach that goal. 

The goal of this happy path is not to make any exceptions or mistakes in the user's navigation when it comes to fulfilling that goal in the website navigation.

If the user goal, for example, is to subscribe to your service, the possible actions could be:

· Navigating to the main page

· Clicking the subscribe button on the page

· Filling out the required information

· Clicking next

· Choosing through the subscriber options

· Clicking next

· Filling out the payment information

· Clicking next

· Clicking the payment button

Once you have created the detailed "happy path" for a specific goal, you can then use the cognitive questions (which we will discuss later in this article) in order to evaluate how well your happy path or design went for your users.

Step 4 Inviting team members.

Another step you need to do when it comes to conducting a cognitive walkthrough is to invite internal members to participate. The idea here is to include industry experts and less-informed team members as part of the process to get valuable insights on both groups.

It is entirely up to you if you like to include your designers as presenters during the walkthrough. Your designers may feel the need to defend their design choices instead of taking a less biased approach during the walkthrough. Whatever you choose, make sure that everyone is prepared and focused on usability and learnability. 

Step 5 Conducting your walkthrough.

Assign a research facilitator who can help you go through the "happy path" for each task in your cognitive walkthrough. 

For each step, you can ask the participants the four cognitive questions that we will discuss below. 

It is suggested that you work with your team to identify together any potential issues that can lead users to start from the path by identifying the correct action is available. Any findings should be taken to note. 

At the end of the walkthrough, try to brainstorm with your team the possible solutions for problems you found in leading your users away from the "happy path."

Step 6 Implementing suggested improvements.

Remember the four cognitive questions that you ask your test users? Once you have all the answers to these questions, you should better understand the existing problems that might lead your users away from the "happy path" of each of your goals. 

Once you have them, you can fix them. Start working with developers, content writers, designers, and other team members who should make the necessary changes.    

Four questions to be asked in your cognitive walkthrough

Questions #1 Will the user realistically tries to do and complete this action?

This is a question that oversees whether you make any assumptions about your users that can affect their actions to follow the happy path to achieve the end goal.

To answer this question, focus first on the potential design factors that could lead to your users not making the desired action. 

Question #2 Is the control for the action evident to the user

This question refers to finding the hidden, obscured, or confusing options on your website or product interface, which prevents users from making the right choice. 

For example, your CTA button may be located at the very bottom of your page, which is not quickly visible to your users.

Another problematic example is the given options. Sometimes, providing users with too many options or providing users with unclear choices will prevent them from taking the right action.  Always make sure that the correct action is available to them without doubt.   

Question #3 Will your user associate the correct and strong link between the control and the outcome of the action?

This question refers to the language used on your website or product interface. Thus, if you use some confusing language or message, or you use some industry jargon, this may limit your users' ability to understand your website or interface, which hinders them from taking the correct action.

To answer this question, you will need to understand better your users and how they use the language in your industry for your user notice that the correct action should be made. 

Question #4 If your user associate the correct action, will the feedback be appropriate to that action?

All conversion-driving user experience design affirms users trying to achieve the right action on the website or in the interface after doing the activity. 

The question, "If your user associate the correct action, will the feedback be appropriate to that action?", should assure users that they are on the right track and that their correct action leads to their desired goal. 

This question is similar to this one, "Will the user see that progress is being made toward the solution of the task?"

So, on the contrary, a website or interface that offers no feedback or requires unassisted repetitive behavior can lead to poor user experience or hinders user trying to achieve the goal since there is no notice that the correct action should be made clear.  

What do you do with the answers to the cognitive walkthrough questions?

As previously mentioned, once you have the answers to the four questions, an evaluator should get involved in recording the step in the process where it has found an issue or record any progress is being made in the walkthrough for the web or interface. The evaluator should identify what the problem was. 

As soon as the process in a cognitive walkthrough is complete, it is recommended that you compile all the evaluators' reports into a single report and prioritize the issues that need fixing.

Final thoughts

UX designers can get too attached to their prototypes during the UX design development. Having said this, when you want to conduct a cognitive walkthrough, you should select someone who is the most objective. This person should not have any attachment to any elements of your website or interface. 

Remember, imagination, empathy, and being objective are the skillset you would want for someone who will handle your cognitive walkthrough testing so users can very well achieve the right action. 

This is also an excellent opportunity to bring someone from other teams to your company and involve them in the UX design process.

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Mary Ann Dalangin

About the author

A content marketing strategist and a UX writer with years of experience in the digital marketing industry.

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