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Conduct a cognitive walkthrough in 9 steps

Last updated

27 April 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Usability is a vital conversion-driving factor on websites, products, and services. 

While you can assess learnability and usability in multiple ways, enlisting the help of real users from your target audience ensures accuracy. For speed and simplicity, you can conduct a cognitive walkthrough with your team members. 

A cognitive walkthrough is a proven strategy to assess a product's usability and limit bias during the assessment. 

Unlike other forms of usability testing, a cognitive walkthrough is quick and cost-effective. You can conduct a cognitive walkthrough during the design phase or at a later point. 

A well-conducted cognitive walkthrough can help you identify user experience challenges that need modification. From there, you can take appropriate measures to maintain or improve your conversion rates. 

Let’s learn how to conduct an effective cognitive walkthrough. 

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What is a cognitive walkthrough?

A cognitive walkthrough is a usability test that identifies design flaws in a service or product and analyzes how easy it is to use.

A cognitive walkthrough usually involves asking test participants to complete a series of tasks while you record their actions. This way, you can learn how users interact with your product and possibly uncover usability flaws. 

Notably, the participants don’t need to be users for you to complete a successful test.

How to conduct a cognitive walkthrough

Follow these steps to conduct a cognitive walkthrough properly:

Identify a goal for the test

Why do you want to conduct a cognitive walkthrough? Identifying the goals of your test makes the test instructions clearer. 

Test with internal and external participants

Cognitive walkthroughs are cost-effective because you can use your internal team to test the product. It saves you the costs and time of hiring external participants. 

You can select employees to participate in the test during the earlier developmental stages when modifications won't cost you a lot of time or money. Choose people who haven’t worked directly on the design to avoid bias. 

Create tasks

The tasks should be easy for participants to complete. Furthermore, your cognitive walkthrough should be unbiased, allowing participants to fail or pass. 

You can combine specific and general instructions in your tests. 

Review your cognitive walkthrough questions before the test

Evaluate your instructions using the fundamental cognitive walkthrough questions before inviting participants. Keep reading to discover the four questions. 

Record your results

It is important to note whether the participant passed or failed the cognitive walkthrough. Recording your results in terms of failure and success will help you categorize data, allowing for easier assessment later. 

Research teams can also use this format to swiftly analyze data and relay the results to product or service management.  

Implement improvements

Once you've evaluated the four test questions, you should have a proper understanding of what challenges users may experience. You can then make the necessary changes to improve the product or service. 

Who should conduct a cognitive walkthrough?

Anybody can conduct a cognitive walkthrough. However, someone who’s familiar with your system might miss a few issues that a real user would discover. This is the trade-off between quick, cost-effective cognitive walkthroughs and user testing.

On the bright side, a cognitive walkthrough is a quick and easy usability check. Once you've prepared your task list and the test questions, find someone from your organization to do it. 

When should researchers conduct a cognitive walkthrough?

A cognitive walkthrough is best during the design process. This way, you can discover design problems that may hinder learnability and usability for the users before too much investment. 

You can also identify opportunities for improvement before taking it to more costly user testing. 

Cognitive walkthrough questions

Here are the four test questions to ask during the cognitive walkthrough:

Will the participant complete the tasks?

Before evaluating the task, see if the participant understands the task at hand without prompting. Give them a goal rather than explaining the task directly.

For example: “You need to pay your water bill. This is your interface; what would you do first?” rather than “Can you find the ‘pay bill’ button?”

Once they’ve identified their task, you can see how well they complete it. This shows how well you’ve designed your system for usability and if you need to make improvements. It requires you to put yourself in the participant's shoes. 

Is the right action evident to the participant?

This question intends to discover any obstructions that could interfere with the test. Are there several ways to complete tasks? See if participants find a way to attain the goal.

Is the user's action directly correlated to the proper outcome?

Even if the participants succeed in finding and achieving their outcome, this question ensures their actions had the expected result. 

You want to ensure an action leads to the correct outcome. Ensure the participant's decisions are directly linked to the feedback or result. 

If the participant takes the correct action, will they promptly move to the next task?

This question determines if users find it easy to advance to the next steps. If your cognitive walkthrough process has multiple steps, list each individually and avoid grouping them. This improves the test accuracy, and users will know exactly how to complete it. 

What do you do with the answers?

Ensure the assessors in the cognitive walkthrough record the steps where participants encountered challenges and what they were. Finally, round up all the assessors' reports into one report and prioritize issues for modification and fixing. 

Are cognitive walkthroughs appropriate for all interface types?

Cognitive walkthroughs evaluate usability and learnability. They’re highly effective for systems with new, complex, or unfamiliar workflows and functionalities. Ideally, these systems require new design patterns or interactions.

FAQs

What is the main focus of a cognitive walkthrough?

The main focus of the cognitive walkthrough process is to understand a system, product, or service's learnability and usability. Designers can focus on improving the system based on the findings of the cognitive walkthrough process. 

What are the three phases of a cognitive walkthrough?

The cognitive walkthrough process has three phases:

1. The preparatory phase

Here, analysts agree on the input conditions for the cognitive walkthrough. These include the tasks, the interface for analysis, the action sequence for the tasks, and finding participants. 

2. The testing phase

Participants work through each task action while researchers capture results for further analysis.

3. The analysis phase

Researchers combine results into one report for the broader team to view and make any necessary changes to the design.

What is the advantage of a cognitive walkthrough?

The main benefit of a cognitive walkthrough is that it provides outside perspectives and experiences with your design. Luckily, you also don't need to acquire feedback from your target audience since you can conduct a relatively unbiased analysis using your internal team.

Is cognitive walkthrough formative?

Yes, you can use a cognitive walkthrough in formative evaluation. This involves iteratively evaluating a system, service, or product during development to identify and eliminate usability challenges.

What is the difference between heuristic evaluation and cognitive walkthrough?

Generally, cognitive walkthrough and heuristic evaluation belong to a family of techniques known as inspection methods, which are analytic techniques. 

The main difference is that while cognitive walkthrough focuses more on specific tasks and contexts, heuristic evaluation is broader.  

Is a cognitive walkthrough a usability test?

Like heuristic evaluation, a cognitive walkthrough is also a usability inspection method with a deeper emphasis on the tasks. You can often run it with internal team members rather than your user base.

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