The walkthrough method: An approach to the study of apps

The walkthrough method: An approach to the study of apps 


Ben Light 

University of Salford, UK

Jean Burgess 

Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Stefanie Duguay 

Queensland University of Technology, Australia



– What is the walkthrough method?

The walkthrough method establishes a foundational corpus of data upon which can be built a more detailed analysis of an app’s intended purpose, embedded cultural meanings and implied ideal users and uses. The walkthrough also serves as a foundation for further user-centred research that can identify how users resist these arrangements and appropriate app technology for their own purposes.

– What is the methodology of the walkthrough method?

Working together on a collaboration around dating and hook-up apps, we developed the walkthrough method out of our engagement with the current digital methods literature and discussions with colleagues calling for a way to unite STS approaches of tracing technological systems with cultural studies techniques for recognising discursive and symbolic representations. It has proved essential in our own analyses, allowing for the deep interrogation of apps

We have further refined and elaborated the method through our experience conducting and garnering feedback from a series of research methods workshops involving more than 250 academics and graduate students working across a number of social science and humanities disciplines. These workshops included practical exercises where participants deployed the walkthrough method to analyse apps across domains including gaming, music, health, ridesharing and microtasking. This process of reflection and refinement has shaped the method into an approach that is now adaptable – in whole or in part – to a range of research questions and agendas. While we invite researchers to apply the walkthrough flexibly and in conjunction with other methods, here we present all its elements sequentially for the sake of coherence and comprehensiveness.

Therefore, analysing an app requires attention to its embedded sociocultural representations as much as its technological features or data outputs, which also have social and cultural influences. This is the intent of our approach to studying apps via the walkthrough method. Our approach incorporates the methods of the medium by inviting the researcher to engage closely with the app, using a step-by-step walkthrough technique that involves progressing through the app’s requirements, screens, and activities to understand how it guides users.

– How would you carry out the walkthrough method?

Walkthroughs, in this vernacular sense, can have pedagogical and commercial value.

In more formal academic settings, early uses of the walkthrough as a technique were grounded in software engineering and oriented towards improving the quality of code and user experience

Human-computer interaction (HCI) drew from software engineering and formalised ‘user walkthroughs’ as devices to assist in the creation of more usable and useful digital products – in particular by highlighting users’ departures from the intended procedures or pathways, and then tweaking the design in response

The walkthrough method we describe here is a significant departure from how similar techniques have been used in such contexts. The walkthrough method we propose is used, not to test whether users respond to an interface in the ways its designers intended, but rather to illuminate the material traces of those intentions, and thereby to critically examine the workings of an app as a sociotechnical artefact. It does so by grounding the step-by-step technique in a combined framework of STS and cultural studies that allows for identifying the technological mechanisms that shape and are shaped by the app’s cultural, social, political and economic context.

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