As an experienced UX researcher, send me a user research brief and I will quickly determine the right research methodology to use. Usually this will involve recruiting users of the product and designing the questions or setting tasks that relate to the objectives.

When I examine the interface being researched, I usually spot the pain points that will arise before speaking to anyone. This comes very naturally to me because over the years I’ve internalised my interactions with hundreds of users during research sessions.

I’m sure that this will ring true with user researchers that have spent many hours with people observing how interfaces are used. These days, clients often ask for an informal opinion at the proposal stage because they recognise the experience that the researcher has.

You could say that researchers have developed a sixth sense for what will happen in the research.

It means that researchers are in a unique position to review interfaces themselves, without recruiting users. During the past few months whilst in lockdown, I’ve done this for a financial client using an under-utilised technique called the Cognitive Walkthrough.

What is a Cognitive Walkthrough?

It’s not a new or trendy – it’s a technique developed over 20 years ago by Jacob Nielsen. The researcher is required to simulate the way users try to accomplish tasks, using a framework to analyse the interface and system.

There are many, many articles about cognitive walkthroughs but they all point to the same framework of four questions that are applied when analysing a task that users are trying to accomplish:

  1. Will the user try to achieve the right outcome?
  2. Will the user notice that the correct action(s) are available?
  3. Will the user connect the correct action with the intended outcome?
  4. Does the user get feedback on progress they have made?

To do it well, it requires a thorough understanding of the technique and a strong grasp of UX principles. Instead of explaining the technique, I’ll outline the skills required and why I think that user researchers are especially suited to it.

Why researchers are good at it

User researchers are especially suited to running a cognitive walkthrough because they have the right skillset:

  1. Observational skills. We are highly skilled at observing voluntary and involuntary reactions in others and are able to observe this in ourselves
  2. This is important for a cognitive walkthrough because one needs to observe oneself moving through a journey. Being able to check reactions as you open a page – how you feel, what you are looking at, any momentary confusion, the intuitive next action you will take…
  3. This observation is difficult as it requires literal and lateral thinking, but researchers are trained to do this whenever they interview users
  4. Being able to spot the pain points is a core requirement of the walkthrough, but researchers can also identify what isn’t an issue and discard it because of their experiences with users
  5. An example of this is ‘the long scroll’. This arises in almost every study I’ve ever done with users. Its acceptability depends on how entertaining or engaging the scroll is and the problems occur when users stop scrolling, often due to false floor / ceiling
  6. Another skill required is the ability to represent the different types of user during the exercise. Researchers encounter a wide range of users, for example those with low digital literacy, accessibility issues or speedsters, and are able to ‘call up’ relevant issues with interfaces to identify pain points. 
  7. Finally, researchers are inherently impartial. We reserve judgement about design style, putting aside our tastes and preferences. This works well for a cognitive walkthrough because the focus is on clarity of process and comprehension of copy, rather than the stylistic qualities of the journey.

This technique requires the researcher to move out of their comfort zone of observing users to base their reporting on. Instead, the researcher has to rely on their knowledge of users to generate a confident analysis of how well journeys are designed.


The Cognitive Walkthrough is a powerful technique that is under-used. It can be used in place of research when budgets are squeezed, when users are difficult to source or as a precursor to a design sprint to provide inspiration.

UX researchers are uniquely able to represent users whilst performing a walkthrough because they have highly relevant skillset.  

If you’d like to hear more about the Cognitive Walkthrough, please get in touch via the contact page.