How mental models improve design

How Mental Models Improve Design

Have you ever tried something new, such as a tablet or smartphone, which you expected to be challenging to navigate but was actually very simple? Conversely, have you ever used a product you expected to be easy and it really wasn’t at all? In the case of the latter, the product was not designed utilizing a consideration of how you think. Mental modeling is one of the most important aspects of design. Here’s why it’s so important!


Your Mental Models


Understanding new things is based largely on relating them to things you know. This is called a mental model. Mental models understood well will lead to conceptual models that are easy to use and fluid, providing the user with a better experience and greater satisfaction.


A great example of a successful convergence of mental models and conceptual models is an ebook. An ebook isn’t made of physical pages to turn, but because you’re familiar with the concept of a book, an ebook simulates pages and makes it easier for you to understand and use successfully. The nearer a conceptual model can be to a mental model, the more instinctive it is to use.


Any designed product or interface has conceptual models, such as websites. People create a mental model about things in their lives and use it to comprehend new concepts, so intuitive design matches the conceptual model to the mental model.


Understanding User’s Mental Models


Mental models vary from person to person, so it’s impossible to unify them all. What you should do is understand what mental models have in common – understand how the user makes sense of things. Every project you work on will need a mental model created from scratch. You can’t assume that the mental model that worked for one thing will work for another.


So, how do develop new mental models? You should use an assortment of:


  • Task analysis – This is the interpretation of a user’s common goals and tasks. It can be speculative, but it’s an easier way to understand the user’s mental model. Just know the accuracy of task analysis tends to be low.

  • User research – Questionnaires and surveys are a low-cost and relatively fast way to understand how users are thinking and what they’re doing. You can do them by phone, in person, through the mail, and online. Just remember the quality of the data is directly related to the quality of the questions asked.

  • Conventions – Even the most inexperienced user has basic expectations of where mechanisms need to be situated and how they should work. Common conventions include links that are underlined, logos at the top left, input boxes in the top right, page headlines that match the navigation label, and scrolling to see more of a page. Use conventions wisely, and you’ll have an intuitive and user-friendly site.

  • Contextual inquiry – This is observing the behavior of users in their typical environment. Observing users in their own environment often yields a more accurate understanding of their motivations and behaviors.

  • Focus groups or interviews – This is a very traditional way to gather data, but it does help you to better communicate by asking follow up questions or additional information on participants answers.

  • Participatory design – This is a newer method of mental model development in which users provide designers with running commentary of their expectations and needs as they’re using the product.


Don’t Put All Your Mental Model Eggs in One Basket

It’s important to remember that collecting data to understand user’s mental models is important, but none of them are going to provide all the information you need to form a good mental model that will lead to a good conceptual one. Intuitive design is more effective when it’s done by matching the way a site functions with the way a user thinks. You have to match the user’s mental model to the product in order to be successful. So, keep trying to find the magic combination that will help you find success in mental modeling.

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