Design Methods #3 – Cognitive Mapping

Nov 04 2012

Cognitive maps reveal people’s underlying decision making rules. They are a visual representation of how we make sense of a problem, issue or idea, revealing how we think about the problem and how we structure our ideas around it.

The technique of cognitive mapping has its origins in George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory, which asserts that people are scientists, and that in an attempt to anticipate (predict) the future we create subjective classifications of everything in the world (called personal constructs). This means that by differentiating concepts, we can create meaning and behave as appropriate to get what we want from the world.. This is very much a “predict and control” view of the world, in line with recent discoveries in brain science and especially our understanding of sensory perception.

George Kelly

Thus, cognitive maps are visual thinking tools (similar to mind maps), that represent networks of ideas and associations, and can be used to help organise a complicated information space so that the relationships between ideas can be understood and shared. Unlike mind maps, there is no  central node or concept which acts as the focus of the map, and all the content is based on the words and phrases used by a subject.

Typically, topics are explored using triadic elicitation (Kelly’s preferred technique) and laddering to determine the key ‘constructs’ used and how they are related.

Each idea in the map can have as many ingoing and outgoing associations as are relevant, and the nature of these links have implications for the cause and effect between ideas, concepts, and more concrete features. In the case of product or experience design work, the impact and causal relationships between relevant ideas can be quantified by getting subjects to rate their own attributes against a set of relevant brands, products or experiences (something known as free choice profiling in sensory research).

Cognitive mapping is a useful tool for transcribing the notes from qualitative research, especially when probes and prompts have been designed to explore the hierarchical nature of ideas, and the best way to learn to develop such maps is to practice using existing data. Individual maps can be combined to create consensus maps, which combine multiple points of view and summarise the common themes and structures across a set of subjects to determine an overall view of the problem which can be used as input for strategic development. As with all such techniques, the building of the map is open and flexible and can be adapted to make it relevant to the specifics of the problem or issue under investigation. These maps are common outputs of qualitative research tools based on storytelling and metaphor based enquiry.


The Psychology of Personal Constructs (Volume I & II) by George Kelly (1955)

5 responses so far

  1. I like the idea that cognitive mapping can help you to visualize a participant’s decision making process – and that is also a useful framework for transcribing your own notes. Love to hear about any other references that discuss cognitive maps in detail. Nice post, thanks.

  2. Kath

    Thanks for your feedback. For more on cognitive mapping, Kelly is a good start. There are other papers on using personal construct theory and laddering and I have written a chapter myself in ‘Measurement of Food Preferences’ (but the book is expensive & difficult to get). Best suggestions are ‘The Mind of the Customer’ by Gerald Zaltman which uses maps to interpret the outputs from metaphor elicitation. There is also a discussion of application to branding in ‘Brand Meaning’ by Mark Batey. You may also want to read one of Tony Buzan’s books on mind mapping which is a related tool used for personal development and business.


  3. I do accept as true with all the ideas you have offered for your post. They’re very convincing and will certainly work. Still, the posts are too brief for starters. May you please prolong them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.

  4. Hi Neil,

    re “there is no central node or concept which acts as the focus of the map”

    There is a useful kind of analysis that exploits the graph nature of cognitive maps. In essence the analysis counts all neighbours per each node and rank orders them. Those with the highest scores can be described as emergent “central nodes” or key issues. Useful for instance for summarising maps.

    Best wishes

  5. Jo

    Thanks for reading and sharing these builds.


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