Cognitive walkthrough

What is a cognitive walkthrough and how to perform it?

One powerful tool within the UX audit toolkit is the cognitive walkthrough. It enables designers to anticipate and address potential stumbling blocks by navigating through the digital interface as a hypothetical user would. This involves a step-by-step analysis of the tasks a user might perform, identifying potential pitfalls, and evaluating how well the system guides the user towards their objectives. In this article, we will explore the intricacies of the cognitive walkthrough, its significance in enhancing the overall user experience and share some useful tips on how to successfully perform the walkthrough within your product.

First things first: What is a cognitive walkthrough?

The Cognitive Walkthrough is a methodological approach employed in UX audits to evaluate the user-friendliness of a digital interface by simulating the user's thought process. Unlike usability testing, which observes user interactions in real time, the cognitive walkthrough anticipates potential user actions, focusing on the logic and decision-making behind each step. By stepping into the user's shoes, designers gain valuable insights into how well the interface supports users in achieving their goals.

A notable advantage of incorporating a cognitive walkthrough (or multiple walkthroughs) lies in its exceptional cost-effectiveness and efficiency compared to various other usability testing methods. Its rapid execution is particularly beneficial, allowing for swift insights to be gathered. Moreover, the versatility of this approach allows its implementation during the design phase, even preceding the development stage. This early integration ensures prompt insights, preventing the allocation of resources towards developing a product that may ultimately prove to be less user-friendly or ineffective.

Mobile app brief template

How to conduct a cognitive walkthrough?

The initial step is to clearly define the tasks anticipated for user execution. The subject of a walkthrough can vary depending on the context and the goals of the evaluation. Some of the most frequently assessed issues include: 

  • Examining the user's journey in completing specific tasks within the digital interface,
  • Assessing the user experience when filling out and submitting forms,
  • Exploring how the interface supports users in decision-making processes,
  • Exploring how easily users can discover and understand the available features.

It is important to note that any tasks within the product that are capable of being performed but fall outside the scope of the cognitive walkthrough typically remain unassessed throughout this particular process.

Once you have selected the area for evaluation, it's time to prepare a document in which you will note all your observations. It should contain the following sections:

  • Title of the walkthrough indicating the topic of the study (e.g. Purchasing a handbag in the Y online store), 
  • Place for a screenshot of the step (optional but helpful),
  • Action step description,
  • 4 questions indicating key areas influencing user experience (see below),
  • Space for an additional comment.

You have selected the research area and created the document – you can now move into the actual research. Try to empathize with your user, write down every single action you need to do to achieve your goal (here: buying a handbag) by writing down all the necessary steps under the action steps section. 

This is not obligatory, but it can be helpful to take a screenshot of the step so that the person who will later analyze the report knows exactly which element or moment in the process you described.

The four questions to be asked in Cognitive Walkthroughs

Finally it's time to analyze all the steps listed (you can, of course, analyze it on the fly, whichever works better for you). To do so, we use four main questions formulated by usability experts Clayton Lewis and John Rieman. They introduced this approach in the early 1990s as a method for evaluating the user interface design based on cognitive psychology principles. The four questions aim to guide you through a systematic analysis are the following:

Question nr 1: Will the user try to achieve the right effect?

This question focuses on whether users can identify the correct action to achieve their intended goal. It assesses the clarity of the interface in guiding users toward the right tasks. For example – if the user is used to a fact, that specific button triggers a specific action, but it works differently in your website or application – this may lead to confusion and a potential usability issue.

Question nr 2: Will the user notice that the correct action is available?

This question evaluates how well the design communicates the availability of relevant options to users. For example – if you provide an extensive number of options to users they might find it overwhelming, confusing and as a result – impossible to find.

Question nr 3: Will the user associate the correct action with the effect they are trying to achieve?

This question explores whether users can correctly link their intended actions to the desired outcomes. For example – when confronted with industry-specific terminology, users may find it challenging to work out the necessary steps required to achieve their goal.

Question nr 4: If the correct action is performed, will the user see that progress is being made toward the solution to the task?

This question focuses on feedback and system response. It evaluates whether users receive clear and meaningful feedback, indicating progress toward completing the task. Simply put, you should inform your users about the progress by things like a “thank you” note after making an order or showing a progress bar to indicate status of uploading a document.

With every single step in the process written down and analyzed using these 4 questions (I recommend color coding, it will speed up the process of analysis) you should already have enough material to draw conclusions and make recommendations to significantly improve the user experience and thus – help business. 

Analysis and recommendations

But how to present your findings? Begin by preparing a report that outlines the identified usability issues and areas of improvement. Use concise and jargon-free language, accompanied by screenshots to point out specific issues. Prioritize findings based on their impact on user experience and provide recommendations. A visually appealing and well-organized presentation, whether in a written report or a compelling presentation, ensures that stakeholders can readily grasp the key takeaways and collaboratively work towards refining the user interface for optimal usability.


The cognitive walkthrough serves not only as a diagnostic tool but also as a catalyst for iterative design improvement. It allows designers to anticipate and address user challenges, as well as ensuring that digital products evolve to meet the ever-changing demands of the users. The process involves systematically evaluating tasks, assessing system feedback, and uncovering assumptions within the design. What is more, its distinctive strength lies in its cost-effectiveness and efficiency. By addressing usability challenges, it contributes to the creation of digital products that not only meet users' functional needs but also align with their thought processes and expectations.