A woman on a sofa with a laptop open viewing a cognitive map

Cognitive Maps in UX | IxDF

by Mads Soegaard | | 22 min read

Cognitive maps in UX show how users think about a product or service. Designers use these visual representations to understand the user's mental model. This helps them create intuitive designs that match the user's expectations and improve their overall experience. 

Think about the last time you used a confusing app or website. You probably became frustrated and maybe even gave up. As UX designers, we want to avoid that experience—our users should be able to easily navigate our products and achieve their goals. 

Cognitive maps help us understand how users think about our designs. Imagine having a map of your user's mind, you could see how they connect different ideas and what they expect to find. This knowledge will allow you to create designs that feel intuitive and natural.  

Let's explore cognitive maps in UX and learn how to use them to improve our designs. 

What are Cognitive Maps? 

Cognitive maps are visualizations of user mental models. They describe how they perceive things and their expectations of them. They typically contain concepts, ideas or facets of the product that users connect with and how they relate to them. 

Cognitive map is a broad term that embraces many types of visualizations of mental models. They are incredibly versatile as there are no rules or rigid formats. Designers and researchers create and analyze cognitive maps to understand user’s line of thinking, to uncover frustration points, confusion and spots for potential optimization. If you design in line with the user’s mental model, you can make your products more intuitive for them. 

User research is crucial for product and service success. Watch Frank Spillers, CEO at Experience Dynamics, speak about target users understanding and implementation of research methods to design appropriate products and services. 

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Take the example of Apple, they might use a cognitive map to understand how users perceive their products. The map would likely include concepts like "innovation," "design," "premium" and "user-friendly" and show how these concepts connect.  

For instance, some might link "innovation" to "new features" and "design" to "sleek aesthetics." Apple recognizes these connections. So, it tailors its marketing messages and product features to match its audience's preferences. 

Another way Apple might use a cognitive map is to identify potential areas for improvement. If the map reveals that users find a particular feature confusing, Apple can redesign it to make it more intuitive. You can create successful products if you understand the user's mental model and adapt the design. 

Types of Cognitive Maps 

Let's talk about the two types of cognitive maps: mind maps and concept maps

  • Mind maps are the simplest form of cognitive maps. They have a structure like a tree, with a central topic that branches into subtopics. This clear hierarchy makes them easy to create and understand. Mind maps can organize information and brainstorm ideas around a single topic. 

  • Concept maps are more complex than mind maps. They emphasize the relationships between concepts and allow nodes to have multiple parents. This makes them ideal to visualize complex ideas with interconnected relationships. Concept maps help understand complex systems, processes or problems from multiple perspectives. 

Why Are Cognitive Maps Important? 

Cognitive maps are crucial in UX design because of several reasons:  

1. Knowledge Externalization 

Cognitive maps help you visualize and understand complex systems or processes. It enables you to gather and enhance your thoughts to better communicate your knowledge with other team members. That is particularly useful when you onboard new team members or explain complex features to stakeholders

2. Identify Patterns and Connections 

When you visualize concepts through cognitive maps, it's easy to reveal hidden patterns and connections you might not have noticed otherwise. This is because cognitive maps visually represent the relationships between different ideas. Thus, you can easily see how they connect and interact. It can lead to new insights and innovative solutions.  

3. Understand User's Mental Models 

Cognitive maps are excellent for UX research. They help you understand how your user perceives and navigates your product. By exploring their thought patterns and evaluating their mental model, you can identify areas of friction and opportunity and generate ideas that align with user expectations. In turn, you can design and iterate your product so that it’s more intuitive for users. 

4. Diverse Nature and Purpose 

You can use cognitive maps in many areas. You can use them to brainstorm ideas, plan projects or make decisions. They fit different fields like business, education and design. 

  • In business, cognitive maps help teams understand complex problems and find solutions.  

  • In education, they help students learn and remember information.  

  • In design, they help creators visualize ideas and plans. 

Cognitive maps are flexible. They work with any concept or situation. You can use them to solve problems and make decisions in many areas. 

5. No Restrictions on Structure or Form 

Unlike other visualization methods, cognitive maps do not have to follow a specific format. This allows for greater creativity and flexibility to represent complex ideas. You can tailor the structure and form of the map to best suit your needs and goals. 

When to Use Cognitive Mapping?

You can find cognitive mapping valuable for certain research scenarios

1. Exploratory Research 

Cognitive mapping can be a great starting point when you're in the early stages of research and want to explore a topic without a clear hypothesis. It allows participants to share their thoughts freely. This way, you uncover unexpected insights and new avenues to explore.  

The open-ended nature of cognitive mapping encourages participants to think aloud. It reveals their natural thought processes and uncovers hidden connections between concepts. 

2. Complex Topics 

You can use cognitive mapping to tackle complex topics with intricate relationships or process components. You may have to deal with ambiguous aspects that users may find difficult to articulate. If users visualize these concepts through cognitive maps, you can understand their connections and make them easier to understand.  

For example, cognitive mapping can help you map out the different components and their interactions to research a complex system like healthcare or finance. 

3. Participatory Action Research 

In participatory action research (PAR), researchers and participants collaborate to identify and solve problems. The visual nature of cognitive maps makes it easier for participants to contribute their knowledge and perspectives. It creates a sense of ownership over the research process. This can lead to more relevant and actionable findings.  

How Do You Create a Cognitive Map?

You create cognitive maps through a structured interview process. Here's a breakdown of the steps involved: 

1. Prepare and Communicate with Participants 

We always suggest that before the interview, you should inform participants about the purpose of the study and how you will be using the data. You should explain that you'll ask them to write, draw, and arrange sticky notes, but avoid using the term "cognitive mapping" to prevent them from researching the topic beforehand. 

2. Plan and Practice the Interview 

Cognitive mapping interviews are less structured than traditional ones, so it's important to practice. Decide whether to use a free-form approach (participants create their maps) or a structured approach (participants fill in a given template). Plan an introduction, like a word association exercise, to get the ideas flowing. 

Practice the interview with colleagues. This helps you refine your approach and identify potential challenges.  

The right interview setting sets the tone for the whole interview. Watch Educator Ditte Hvas Mortensen and Ann Blandford, Professor of HCI at University College London, discuss the right interview settings.  

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3. Assign Roles and Coordinate Logistics 

An observer can help you record, take notes and set up tech. If you plan to involve multiple team members, assign clear roles. The facilitator guides the interview, while the note-taker focuses on documenting the participant's words, their non-verbal cues and the placement of items on the map. 

Choose a room with ample space to help participants create the cognitive map. It's ideal to have a large table and a whiteboard. Limit the number of people in the room to the facilitator and participant. Observers and note-takers can participate remotely to avoid crowding the space. 

4. Involve Remote Observers 

If more than two team members participate, use a live stream for remote observation. This allows them to take notes alongside the in-room note-taker. One remote observer can handle logistics like they can welcome participants and prepare materials. 

5. Choose the Right Environment and Materials 

Select a location with ample table space and a whiteboard if possible. Gather materials like multicolored sticky notes, markers, large-format paper and dry-erase markers. Set them up to subtly encourage the participant to use them as intended. 

6. Record the Session 

It's better to video record the session. It helps you review insights later, clarify any ambiguities and educate others on the method. The closing phase will help you get final insights and feedback. The facilitator should ensure the participant shares everything they can offer. This helps create a comprehensive understanding of their mental model. You might ask, "Is there anything else you want to share or add to your map?" 

Additionally, use this time to seek feedback on the cognitive mapping method. You can ask, "What did you think of our current approach?" Their input can help you refine the process for future interviews. This makes it more effective and comfortable for participants. 

7. Streamline Note-Taking and Documentation 

Create a shared document where everyone watching can take notes simultaneously. They can even use a shared system to label their observations as they happen. This way, you can spot patterns early and guess what they mean. 

Things to Keep in Mind When You Conduct a Cognitive Mapping Interview 

You must plan carefully and pay attention to detail when you conduct a successful cognitive mapping interview. Here are some key points to keep in mind: 

1. Open the Interview Well 

How you start sets the tone for the whole interview. Introduce yourself and your team. Mention the purpose of the research and the participant's value to it. Assure them of confidentiality and emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers. Introduce the cognitive mapping method. Explain the duration, activities and materials. Allow time for questions to ease any concerns. 

2. Facilitate the Session 

Start with a warm-up question, such as a word-association exercise, to get the participant thinking. As they build their map, ask open-ended questions to encourage them to elaborate and make connections between concepts.  

Use prompts like "How would you group these terms?" or "What comes to mind when you say...?" Prepare a list of topics and probing questions in advance, but be flexible and adapt to the participant's flow. 

3. Close the Interview 

Give the participant a chance to add any final thoughts or ideas. Thank them for their time and emphasize the value of their contribution. Ask for feedback on the cognitive mapping method to inform future sessions if appropriate. 

4. Analyze the Data 

Cognitive mapping creates three main things: what the person said in the interview, the map they made and notes from observers. These are qualitative data. It means they are not numbers. We need to look at this data to find themes and patterns. Coding and sorting the data will show the person's thoughts and help us make design choices. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Cognitive Mapping in User Research 

Cognitive mapping is valuable for understanding how users perceive and interact with products, services or systems. It provides several advantages in user research: 

Advantages of Cognitive Mapping 

  1. Flexibility: Unlike other research methods, cognitive mapping is less structured. This lets people share their thoughts freely. It reveals their natural thinking patterns and may help unexpected insights. 

  1. Visual aid: Participants write down ideas on a paper. It creates a visual reference throughout the interview. This allows the participant and researcher to refer to previous points for better understanding.  

  1. Participant value: Participants understand the topic more clearly as they visually organize their thoughts. Connecting ideas can lead to new insights and a greater sense of ownership over the research. 

  1. Rich data: Cognitive mapping produces various data types. It may include transcripts, recordings, the map itself and a video of its creation. This rich dataset offers multiple perspectives for analysis. 

Disadvantages of Cognitive Mapping 

  1. Not a standalone tool: Cognitive maps should not replace other research methods. They offer valuable insights. But, you should use them with other data for a complete picture. 

  1. Facilitator's skill: The data collection quality depends on the facilitator's skill. Good facilitation requires practice and adaptability to guide participants while maintaining a comfortable environment. 

  1. Potential for wandering: Because of the open-ended nature of cognitive mapping, participants may stray from the topic. The facilitator needs to guide them back to the main focus. 

  1. Participant discomfort: Some people might feel unsure about the writing and drawing involved in cognitive mapping. The facilitator should tell them there are no right or wrong ways to make the map. The focus is on their ideas, not their artistic ability. 

The Take Away 

Cognitive maps offer a unique window into the minds of users. They visually represent how people think, feel and interact with products, services and systems. These mental models allow you to create more intuitive, user-friendly and successful experiences. 

Cognitive mapping may have some challenges, but its benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. It gives you the flexibility, actionable insights and potential to uncover hidden patterns making it a valuable tool in any UX researcher's toolkit. You can include cognitive mapping into your research process to better understand your users. It'll help you create products that resonate with their needs and expectations. 

References and Where to Learn More 

Read our topic definition of mind maps.  

Learn how to make compelling and user-friendly visuals in our comprehensive course on Information Visualization


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