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Last updated on 4/29/20

Make Design Decisions According to Mental Models

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Have you ever visited a website and felt incredibly lost because none of the information was organized in a way you'd expect? This is something lots of companies are guilty of – they arrange the information in a way that makes sense to them with no regard to actual users or customers.

Imagine a large luxury/fashion brand that approached their website information architecture the same way that the internal structure of the company was organized. The fashion house grew over time, but never re-thought how teams were organized. Then they translated the human structure into how they organized the website. This approach may have made sense to the employees of the company, but other people likely experienced a sense of confusion. Most visitors to the website wanted to search for things by type: mens/womens, or the type of product. How the internal structure of the company is organized is useless information to the user. You can look to mental models to better understand the disconnect.

What are mental models?

Mental models help explain the thought process of how something works. There's the dichotomy between how you expect something to work and how it really works.

In design, mental models are how users make sense of how something works based on past experiences or previous knowledge. The impressions and assumptions you make may be influenced by the way something looks, feels, or sounds. Not everyone will have the same mental model for a given product.

Susan Carey's 1986 journal article "Cognitive Science and Science Education," defines mental models as a representation of a "person's thought process for how something works (i.e., a person's understanding of the surrounding world). Mental models are based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions. They help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems."

Mental models can be shaped by many different factors. The idea of "home" or "house" can mean something very different for someone who grew up in a big city, versus someone who grew up in a small town or the countryside. Similarly, you may have your own bias or opinions around public transportation depending on your first experiences.

The mental model of how a digital reader works is based on how users read books.
The mental model of how a digital reader works is based on how users read books. Image credit: UXMastery

In the article "The Secret to Designing an Intuitive UX," psychologist Susan Weinschenk, PhD shares the example of how users may think about digital readers based on their experience with physical books. Mental models are particularly intriguing when you consider the user's first interaction with the product. If they can't figure out how it works right away, it may be their last interaction! Also keep in mind that users will often have a mental model of how something will work before they even set hands on it.

The Nielsen Norman Group has a similar definition, pointing out that mental models are based on beliefs, not facts. They also point out that there is typically a gap between the user's mental model and that of the designer. (Remember the UX mantra "You are not the user," explored in the course Dive Into UX Design.) Additionally, mental models are not fixed—they can change over time, particularly as technology develops. Humans are constantly influenced by external stimuli as well.

Mental models are key for designing products that add value to users. However, sometimes a poor mental model can lead to the difference between life or death. If a user can't figure out how to use a heart defibrillator (the kind in public places in case of emergency), or has a misunderstanding of how a gear shift in a car works, more serious implications can arise.

Human Centered Design expert Jamal Nichols introduces the concept of mental models.  [19:02 min] One of the examples he shares is a car gear shift that was not intuitive to users and led to accidents.

To integrate mental models, the research and discovery phase of design is crucial to understanding users. Ethnography or contextual inquiry involves observing users but also asking questions to better understand what, and why, they are doing something. This deep understanding of users can help you better design user flows, task analysis, and information architecture. These concepts are explored in more detail in the courses Conduct Design and User Research and Test Products on Users.  

Mental models can influence information architecture

Information architecture refers to the organization of shared information and how it is presented (think website navigation). Information architecture provides a blueprint for what information is needed and where it goes. In the course Test Products on Users ,we examined card sorting as a tool to understand user mental models

Screenshot from course that introduced card sorting. You see the back of two people working with a set of notecards in order to organize them in a way that makes sense to the user.

In open card sorts, the users are asked to imagine what the information would be and how they would organize it. In closed card sorts, users are provided with cards containing the existing categories and sub-categories. They are then asked to organize them in a way that makes sense to them. In hybrid card sorts, there are existing informational categories as well as blank cards in case users want to add or change any information. After the card sort is complete, participants can be asked to share why they made certain choices.

Can you change the way people think?

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Think you could convince someone to try hitchhiking today?

Have you ever been in an unfamiliar place and then got in a car with a complete stranger to get you somewhere else? In the past, this was called hitchhiking and considered risky. It's still done today! The only difference is, now it's done through apps like Lyft or Uber. These services helped change how users think about taking a taxi or getting in a car with a stranger.

In order to change the way people think, act, and behave, it takes time and an understanding of mental models. This can be done through interviews, ethnographic research, card sorting, and usability testing.

The mental model around hopping in a car with strangers has changed in recent years. These carshare apps couldn't have existed before trust was built with users in order to ensure the mental model of riding in strangers' cars was one of confidence rather than fear.

Changing the way people think is incredibly difficult and it doesn't happen overnight. Start-ups like Airbnb—which facilitate's sleeping in a stranger's home—may have sounded crazy when the founders first tried to pitch the idea to investors. Today, Airbnb has made it to the mainstream and is part of most people's vocabulary.

Often the term "disruption" is used to describe changing the ways people think and behave. Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber all had to work to build trust with users as they introduced new ideas in what became dubbed the "collaborative economy" or "gig economy" (a contrast to traditional full-time jobs).

Understanding the mental models of users and customers is key to understanding how you can reframe problems and solutions. We'll consider more regarding how users think and behave in the chapters to come.

Let's recap!

  • The mental model of users is influenced by their current knowledge and past experience, which helps inform how they think something will work or function. 

  • How people think something works does not always match how it actually works.

  • You have to talk to and spend time with actual users in order to understand their mental models.

  • Card sorting is one way to understand how a user may approach a subject matter, which is particularly useful for determining the information architecture of a website.

  • Information architecture is crucial for helping users help find the information they need. Use Dan Brown's eight principles of information architecture to guide you and help you think critically.

  • It's not easy to change people's mindsets, but disruption is possible when the right product enters the market at the right time, with the right circumstances. Spending time with users is the first step.

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement