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Cognitive Walkthrough 

What is it?

Cognitive walkthrough is a review technique where expert evaluators construct task scenarios from a specification or early prototype and then role play the part of a user working with that interface--"walking through" the interface. They act as if the interface was actually built and they (in the role of a typical user) was working through the tasks. Each step the user would take is scrutinized: impasses where the interface blocks the "user" from completing the task indicate that the interface is missing something. Convoluted, circuitous paths through function sequences indicate that the interface needs a new function that simplifies the task and collapses the function sequence.

How do I do it?

Begin by evaluating a system specification in terms of the tasks users will perform with that system. It helps to identify the user's goals and purpose for each task. For example, the interface for operating a car begins with the goals of opening the door, sitting down in the driver's seat with the controls easily accessible, and starting the car. And we're not even driving yet! This example shows the granularity that some walkthroughs attain. The goal of "opening the door" could be broken down into sub-goals: find the key, orient the key, unlock the door, open the door. Each of these goals requires cognitive (thinking) and physical actions. To open the door, do I orient my hand with the palm up or with the palm down? What affordances are provided for opening the door?

During the walkthrough, identify problems in attaining the goals. For example, some car doors accept keys only if they're oriented one way. Does this cause an unacceptable delay for the user? Since the sub-goal of opening the door is a prerequisite to operating the car, this might be a large issue.

When should I use this technique?

Cognitive walkthroughs are great for the early stages of development because they can be performed using just system specifications as a basis. Artists conceptions of what screens might look like can be used to give the walkthrough a more realistic bent.

Who can tell me more?

Check out any of the following sources for more information:

Rowley, David E., and Rhoades, David G. "The Cognitive Jogthrough: A Fast-Paced User Interface Evaluation Procedure.'' CHI `92 Proceedings, (May 3-7, 1992): 389-395.

Spencer, Rick. " The streamlined cognitive walkthrough method.'' CHI 2000 Proceedings, (April 1 - 6, 2000): Pages 353-359.

Wharton, Cathleen, et. al., "The Cognitive Walkthrough Method: A Practictioner's Guide." in Nielsen, Jakob, and Mack, R. eds, Usability Inspection Methods, 1994, John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY. ISBN 0-471-01877-5 (hardcover)
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