Cognitive Mapping in UX Research: Can mental models really enhance user research?

UX research and cognitive mapping

Who knew what transpired at a Berkeley University lab in the 1930s would one day revolutionize design process thinking and UX research. The path-breaking psychology experiment which taught the world about latent learning and cognitive mapping laid the foundations of what is known as mental models. But how do these elements fit in the realm of UX research? And why, as a UX designer should you strengthen your understanding of cognitive mapping techniques?

A brief intro to latent learning

The scientist responsible for introducing the concept of cognitive mapping in psychology, Edward Tolman, was a huge proponent of latent learning. This is defined as a form of learning that doesn’t necessarily become visible or apparent when the process of information input occurs but becomes evident, at a later stage, when suitable situations or motivations come into the picture.

In other words, the brain doesn’t necessarily indulge in the process of learning just by following either a positive or negative reinforcement but also at a subconscious level.

For example, you might not consciously try to learn and remember the route to your work, including the buildings, shops, trees, and even the faces of people but if you are asked to draw a map of the same from memory you will be able to do so, in most cases. Now how does this concept of latent learning and remember the route to your workplace really fit in the domain of UX research?

The answer is cognitive mapping.

What is cognitive mapping?

The definition of cognitive mapping goes something like this –

“A process of series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, codes, stores, recalls, and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday spatial environment.

This can be best understood as a neuropsychological process in which both conscious and subconscious levels of learning are involved and there isn’t always a presence of conscious intent. The output of this mapping is generally a graphical layout or diagram form of the information that is “mapped” by the brain, also known as a cognitive map.

In simple words, a cognitive map is an overall mental image or visual representation of the spatial layout of a setting. Cognitive mapping is the process by which the brain creates a mental structure formed through memory and instincts and this can be represented by a physical visual diagram or schema.

The psychology of cognitive mapping

Mark the words, “memory” and “instinct”.

cognitive map

Contrary to what most people would like to believe, both of these psychological entities are subject to change over time. Many people tend to recall things and bygone events in a much different light than these things actually happened. When we recall events, situations, or even faces of people and how they sounded like, etc. we have a tendency to use our subjective beliefs in identifying, portraying, and retelling them.

What Edward Tolman discovered about this critical aspect of human psychology through his experiments on rats is that cognitive maps created by each person are unique and it not only provides insights on an individual’s mental representation of concepts but also the relations between these concepts.

Or in other words, how each of us views and represents the “maze” in our brain.

Psychologists utilize these cognitive maps as a way to get a deeper understanding of a person’s psyche in terms of what is known and believed by that particular individual. UX designers use cognitive mapping and mental models in a much broader sense.

From the point of view of the design process, cognitive mapping is a holistic, all-encompassing process that comprises visual representations (diagrams, schema, flow-charts, etc.) of mental models. You can literally take a piece of paper and a pencil or crayon and draw a map of your work route and that would be a cognitive map.

Why is cognitive mapping important for UX designers?

Cognitive mapping provides designers a more structured way of thinking and planning. By taking in inputs from different users or test-users, they can develop a pictorial representation of their ideas and concepts and how these linked to one another. These valuable insights can be used for:

  • Brainstorming for ideas
  • Design of complex structures such as the complete layout of a website
  • Communication of complex ideas
  • Accelerate learning by collaborating the old ideas with new ones
  • Detect issues within the current structure

Additionally, UX designers can utilize the potential of free-form cognitive mapping for:

  • Representing internal mental models in the form of external graphs/flowcharts/diagrams
  • Visualization of any simplex or complex process
  • Identification of key patterns or themes to investigate missing pieces of a puzzle
  • Elucidation of a mental model through individual user interview.

Cognitive mapping provides a comprehensive platform for UX designers to get a glimpse into the minds of the users.

What do users know about a particular process?

How much is their understanding?

How well are they able to cope up with complex structures and systems?

The answers to all of these and more can be extracted through cognitive mapping modules. These insights turn pivotal when commencing on the journey of new product development especially so during the process of user research.

Cognitive mapping and mental models, in general, provide UX designers a strategic advantage by enabling them to visualize both spatial and non-spatial tasks associated with design. 

Can cognitive mapping improve user research?


Elucidation of a mental model is a significant benefit provided by cognitive mapping to UX designers. This method, if applied correctly, can help streamline the process of user research by giving all the information collected a proper structure. Let us understand what are the benefits of cognitive mapping that make it so unique in the face of other user research methodologies:


  • Cognitive mapping is flexible. On the surface level, cognitive mapping might appear too unstructured or “messy”, however, since it does not follow any strict guidelines or limitations unlike the traditional methods of user research (qualitative analysis, interviews, usability tests), it is more flexible than these methods. The open-ended format can provide a room for critical information and unique insights which the traditional formats are unable to capture owing to their comparatively rigid structure. This allows for participants involved in user research to tap into their instincts and thought processes which undeniably translates into richer


  • Cognitive mapping is a complete visual representation of information where each step is documented physically on a piece of paper. This documentation enables the interviewer and the participant to have a visual stimulus throughout the process of the interview which can be utilized to go back and forth on the current point of discussion and even expand on the ideas. This becomes even more authentic because there is no need to rely on memory or any previous


  • Cognitive mapping is perhaps the best-known method of externalizing existing knowledge by forming diagrams, flowcharts, or other visual schemas. This not only provides the interviewer a set of rich, streamlined, and instinctive data but also enables the participant in the user research to gain a new and unique understanding of the particular domain. This tangible record makes the participants often question themselves more and more and this yields a clear and lucid connection between random chunks of information


  • Another unique benefit of cognitive mapping is that since it is a more free-flowing and non-restrictive form of user research, it generally tends to be much more relaxed and stress-free for the participant, unlike traditional interviews. The facilitator can also make a note of all the non-verbal cues of the participant such as facial expressions or hand gestures to gain a richer understanding of the participants’ views. The entire process can also be recorded and documented for further viewing and analysis.

How to conduct a successful cognitive mapping interview?

Preliminary phase

  • Explain the participant the purpose of the interview and in what ways the information would be used. It would be best not to use the term “cognitive mapping” when describing the process to the participant as it might make many of them start researching the term and preparing themselves on how to answer rather than relying on their natural instincts.
  • Run a few practice sessions with your colleagues before actually running the interview on participants.
  • Plan before the session the structure or agenda you want to be followed. You can either choose to keep it 100% free-flowing or maybe have some structural elements involved in it.

Setup the system

  • Make sure that everything is ready before interview. The room is set-up properly for note-taking, recording of the interview, the materials that you need, etc.
  • It would also be wise to decide who will be taking the interview and who would assist in creating the cognitive map. More often than not, it is better to have two people present during the interview – one is the facilitator (the one who asks questions) and the other is the note-taker. It is the responsibility of the note-taker to not only create a visual diagram of the user’s mental model by penning down their words and ideas but also taking into account the emotions and non-verbal cues and the respective content these cues are associated.
  • Have a large table and ideally a white board space for creating the cognitive maps.
  • Don’t crowd the space. The most suitable set-up is where there is only the facilitator and the user in the room. The observation and/or note-taking can be done remotely.

Running the interview

  • Begin the interview by introducing the concept of cognitive mapping. Refrain from rushing in. Spend some time in explaining the purpose of the interview sessions.
  • At this stage it is also important to explain to them how cognitive mapping interview process really works and what needs to be done from the user side to ensure that the ideas and information furnished by them is more free-flowing and instinct-based in nature.
  • Prepare a good initial trigger question. It can be in the form of a word association game where you can ask the user what is the first word that comes to their mind when they hear the term “design process” or anything that suits your purpose.
  • Have a good set of leading questions to prompt the user for creating a mental model and then charting it out physically in the form of a cognitive map.
  • When bringing the interview to an end, the facilitator must ensure that the user has provided enough information and insight possible from their side.  This phase can also be utilized to gain some feedback on the methodology used that can help you further refine the process for future interviews.

Are there any drawbacks to cognitive mapping for user research?


cognitive map types

Despite being an all-encompassing and flexible methodology for conducting user research, there are a few limitations associated with cognitive mapping. It is critical to be aware of both the pros and cons of cognitive mapping to get the maximum benefits out of it.


  • During initial few interviews it might not appear that structured or it takes some time for the process methodology to set in.
  • Cognitive maps shouldn’t be considered as a replacement to traditional methods. The best way to incorporate them in your interviews is to use cognitive maps combined with other structured and semi-structured modules.
  • The quality of data collected by this method is heavily influenced by the skills of the facilitator. The person running the interview needs to have a certain level of skills and prowess of choosing the right trigger questions and prompts and conducting the process in an open and balanced way. If the facilitator doesn’t meet these requirements, the process of cognitive mapping might end up yielding poor results.
  • The very feature of cognitive mapping that makes it so unique and useful can also be the biggest roadblock in effective data collection. Because it is free-flowing and sans rigidity, at times the process can digress from the topic at hand. It highly probable that the discussions go beyond the scope of the interview and it would require a skilled facilitator to bring things back to the topic at hand.
  • A sizable proportion of participants might not be very comfortable with the free-flow structure of the cognitive mapping interviews. They may feel apprehensive in drawing or making their mental models tangible without any structure or format provided to In many cases, they are more comfortable in traditional interview modules.

Best areas of cognitive mapping application in user research

  • When the research itself is not bound by any restrictions or rigid structure and the themes and patterns are still in the “discovery” This method is much apt where the type of research or investigation is exploratory.
  • Complex systems and processes where most questions are yielding ambiguous answers, aka, there is either a lack of clarity or direction.
  • In case of PAR or Participatory Action Research modules where the research methodology focuses on collecting large-scale information that can be put for future use (mostly within the domains of social or environmental causes).

Best alternatives to cognitive mapping

In case your user research methods don’t fall in the above-mentioned categories or you feel that in your specific case, the limitations of cognitive mapping outweigh its benefits you can take the help of any one of these subtypes of cognitive mapping. Each of these is a slightly more restrained version of cognitive mapping and thus suitable for specific situations.

Mind Maps

A mental model which has one clear central idea and the rest information are subcategories of this main idea. There is a clear hierarchy of information. Due to this feature, they are easy to create, understand, and consume.

Mind maps are often referred to as “tree structures” and are best applied where there is clarity in terms of flow of directionHere, each node has only one parent node and it is easy to trace back the root of any node by following the simple hierarchical pathways. From UX point of view, mind maps are most suitable for areas such as breaking down the components of a specific webpage. However, there is no way to identify the exact nature of the relationship between different nodes thus these should be used when the structure is a simplistic one.

Concept Maps

To facilitate the understanding of relationships between different nodes in a mind map, concept maps came into existence. These are used in complex structure and processes where it is essential to understand how two or more nodes relate to each other. The relationship between different nodes is labeled. Here, one node doesn’t need to have just one parent.

There can be multiple parents to one node, unlike in the case of mind maps. In the domain of UX design and research, these can be applied within complicated systems where there is interconnection of several nodes and/or there are multiple ways to perceive a single idea/solution. Design of organizational operations or concepts which are interconnected through a set of actions are where concept maps become handy. Here, instead of a tree, the pictorial representation resembles that of a web.

An easy approach to understand where to apply which type of mapping

  • Mind maps, the simplest of them all should be used when mapping the different categories and subcategories of content in one single webpage or unit.
  • Concept maps are appropriate for mapping the entire website as a whole where there could be different entry points for a particular user and the relationship between different segments have a complex nature.
  • Cognitive mapping is one of the best approaches for user research and user interviews to unlock the thought processes of different users and gain a holistic idea of how they think and create mental models.

Cognitive mapping & mental models: The key takeaway for UX designers

Cognitive mapping and mental models, in general, provide UX designers a strategic advantage by enabling them to visualize both spatial and non-spatial tasks associated with design. When a cognitive map is in front of you it becomes easy to spot issues and mistakes.

What a cognitive map really does is that it aids representation of subjective data more meaningfully as compared to other methods. By highlighting priorities and at times providing the missing link, cognitive maps can enable building systems and interface that can communicate better with the end users.

When identifying and validating the subjective needs of the end-users, nothing beats a cognitive map. Not to mention, the plethora of deep and unique insights it provides in case of exploratory user research interviews.

Products which deal with direct communication with the end users such as users’ guides and manuals, online help, etc. can gain a lot by employing cognitive mapping in the design stages.

In specific cases, the more restricted versions of cognitive mapping such as concept maps and mind maps can be used. The bottom line is to enhance our understanding of the users’ both latent and blatant needs and it is impossible to do so by following rigid traditional interview structures.

However, care must be ensured that cognitive mapping is not applied as an isolated methodology for extracting information from the user but an effective combination of all three – concept, mind, and cognitive maps must be incorporated at different phases to create the best possible design for the end-users.