What Is a Cognitive Map?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Cognitive mapping is a method used during user experience (UX) research to create a visual representation of a user’s mental perception of a concept or process.

[Featured image] A UX designer is using cognitive maps to research on their laptop.

Cognitive mapping provides an understanding of how users think about a product or interface and, how they evaluate or interact with it. It’s also an umbrella term for all visual representations of mental models because cognitive maps have no rules or restrictions in its format and purpose. 

What are the mediums for cognitive maps? 

Mediums to make these maps include paper, digital tablets, whiteboards, sticky notes, and any artist’s tools like pens, pencils, markers, or crayons. Bullet points, illustrations, charts, diagrams, and abstract shapes are all permissible in this free-form problem-solving style.


Read more: User Experience (UX) Terms: A to Z Glossary

Types of cognitive maps

Within the broad term of cognitive maps, you’ll find specific types that adhere to format and function rules. The following are two different types of cognitive maps that are used to conduct research: 

  • Mind maps: The most simplistic format of cognitive mapping is mind mapping. Mind maps focus on one central idea and use branches to elaborate on the user’s viewpoint with subtopics and thoughts. The hierarchical structure creates a visually organized arrangement that helps connect concepts and ideas. These maps form a tree structure where the branches and leaves must connect to the root concept.

  • Concept maps: Concept maps often follow a stricter chart structure that reads from top to bottom to encourage deeper logical analysis. The main characteristic of this map is the definition of relationships between concepts. As a rule, the map starts with one node, representing a concept that can parent multiple nodes. Labels define relationships between nodes. 

Cognitive maps help UX designers conduct research to understand the intricacies involved in user experience. Use mapping as a tool to get a visual representation of cognitive processing and to externalize knowledge. Through mapping, you will provide context to conceptual relationships and patterns to identify issues and improve user experience with your design. 

Learn UX design

If you’re ready to get started as a UX designer (or learn more about what UX design is all about), consider the Google UX Design Professional Certificate on Coursera. You can equip yourself with the job-ready skills you’ll need for an entry-level role in UX design. Upon completion, gain a Professional Certificate to include in your LinkedIn profile or resume. 

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