Cognitive mapping

A way to explore a user's thoughts, experiences and motivtions through a quick drawing/doodle.

"Cognitive maps offer almost instant access to the world of the user. Their focus is on the map, not on you." Andy Priestner, UXLibs

When to use

  • At the start of a user interview - Conversation can flow a lot better when the interviewee has something to focus on.
  • During guerrilla testing - Found a group of people willing to do a quick test, but only got one iPad? Break out the pens! While one of them taps and scrolls, the others can draw.
  • At pop-up events - Get really spontaneous cogmaps from random passers-by.
  • As a workshop activity - Gather qualitative data AND break the ice: get people to draw individually then share and compare in pairs or small groups.


Start with a quick explanation of the purpose of your research and what's going to happen in the session, but don't refer to it as 'cognitive mapping' - that can sound daunting - it's just 'a drawing exercise'.

  1. Give your participant a stack of blank paper and a black pen.
  2. Choose two more pens in contrasting colours dark enough to show up in a scan, and keep these to one side.
  3. Tell them they've got 6 minutes to draw [your concept] and that this is NOT a test of their artistic skills. "Just doodle whatever that means to you - you can’t get it wrong. Include anything you want: objects, people, shapes, scribbles, even a few words if you need to label something you’ve drawn. You’ll be using these three pens and you get two minutes with each pen. I’ll hand you a new pen when it’s time to switch. Ready? Go!’
  4. Start a silent timer and keep quiet while they draw.
  5. After 2 minutes, and again after 4 minutes, gently take the pen they’re using and give them the next one. Make a note of the colour order eg 1 Black, 2 Blue, 3 Red.
  6. Tell them when they’ve got 20 seconds left.
  7. If they’re still scribbling at 6 minutes, give them a few more seconds to finish what they’re doing. It’s fine if they don’t want to take the full 6 minutes.
  8. Thank the participant for being up for it and ask them if they’d like to explain what they’ve drawn. As they talk, prompt for extra details when needed.
  9. If they skip over part of the drawing during their explanation then go back to it at the end by pointing and asking 'What’s this bit?' As always, don’t speculate: let everything be in their words.
  10. Finish by asking whether they’d draw it differently if they did it again.

Example of a cognitive map of the concept 'My digital life'

Why 3 pens? And why 2 minutes per pen?

This helps you understand the participant’s priorities and thought processes. Whatever came into their head first is likely to be the most central, fundamental thing they associate with the concept. You can see what that is because it’s drawn in black.

If they had any last minute flurries of inspiration on hearing there were only 20 seconds left, these will be drawn in the third colour.

And the ways the 3 colours overlap - or don’t - hints at how they went about breaking the concept down in their head. Once you know whether they were thinking chronologically, in categories, or simply scattergunning, you can tailor your questions appropriately.

Mappable concepts

  • 'Draw your digital life'
  • 'Draw your understanding of what services the Library offers'
  • 'Draw your life's journey from school to today'
  • 'Draw why you work for the University'