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What Is a Mental Model? Leveraging a Better User Experience

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The way we navigate the world and how we make sense out of it is directly linked to our capacity to break down complex concepts and situations into simpler ones. That would summarize what a mental model is. Beyond that, mental models also operate both with the way we reason and structure information.

In decision-making processes the more mental models you have at hand, the greater the likelihood of taking less biased and better decisions.

As Peter Senge, American systems scientist, said, “Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”

Mental Model as a Leverage for a Better User Experience

While mental models are imperfect, they’re useful. They create a framework that helps people understand life, guide perceptions and behaviors, and act as thinking tools to help us solve problems. 

People use apps and websites daily and have come to expect certain apps and websites to behave in certain ways. Your users will come to your website with preconceived ideas on how it should work and function and it’s crucial that you plan for that expected user experience (UX). If your users are confused, find your website or app difficult to use, they’ll go elsewhere and never look back.   

In A Good User Interface and Why It's Vital for Business, we talked about how a user’s mental model is their intuitive knowledge of how something is supposed to work based on their own experiences. In the context of UX, mental models are based on what the user knows from previous interactions with websites, apps, mobile phones, etc.  

Whether you’re developing a new app or redesigning a website, UX and usability should be at the forefront of your design. In Is UX Design Necessary, we define UX as the sum total of the experience that users have. It’s the emotional result after having used your website or app. UX is also a result of your user interface (UI) and overall usability. You can learn more about the differences between UX, UI, and usability here

While tempting, it is not ideal to reinvent the wheel. According to Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience, “Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know. Design for patterns for which users are accustomed.” 

In other words, your users already have expectations — mental models — about how a website or app should function. UX designers can leverage those preconceptions as shortcuts when creating UI. When designers don’t have to work through solutions, they can focus on optimizing the details to help ensure a kinder UX.

You’ll need to use different tools to get in the mind of a user and be able to understand how they think and behave when interacting with a new product. 

The challenging part is that mental models can generate an incomplete image, lacking facts or being based on intuitive perceptions rather than being data-driven.

Determining a User’s Existing Mental Models

Designers can tap into mental models to develop apps and websites to relay function through form. But, before they can do so, designers and researchers must understand the user’s existing mental models. A designer's mental model may not be the same as the user’s. That means designers must figure out ways to understand the user’s mental model, which can be done in a few ways:

Jakob’s Law

As we previously discussed, Jakob’s Law is the concept that since users spend most of their time on other websites, they’ll expect your website to function in the same way as those they’ve already visited. To ensure your app or website achieves this, designers should design with patterns, or mental models, users are familiar with.

Card Sorting

Card sorting exercises can be helpful in determining how users categorize the information in your website or app design. UX designers and researchers can also ask questions about the category groupings to better understand the user’s mental model. Card sorting options include:

  • Closed – users are presented with categories that have been established before the exercise.
  • Open  – users are tasked with assigning the elements into groups that feel most appropriate, they can create categories and names themselves.  
  • Hybrid – users work with pre-made categories but can also add additional categories if they feel they’re needed. 

Assessing What Needs to be Optimized

  • One level higher

It’s important that through the whole UX design process there is strong agility starting with sprint-level or low-level UX design where the main focus is minimal usability testing or customer validation going up to engineering level (where engineers get involved in UX work, too), followed by feature-level UX where design leads join in other departments in order to develop a product based on user research and product observations. Forming relationships with other departments, for example, will move your design from a low level to a feature one. 

  • Theory of constraints

Together with technical and business constraints, UX design constraints can either stand in the way of product or service innovation or foster it. 

From a UX perspective, what these constraints manage to do for users is prevent them from taking an action that was not initially intended by designers. This way, users are left with one or two options, which helps in simplifying their choices when navigating through an app or while interacting with a product.  

  • First Principle

Rather than drawing conclusions through analogy, the First Principle mental model in UX design proposes breaking down a problem to its most fundamental truths and using them as a starting point for making UX decisions. 

How to Make a Calculated Decision

  • Medium & Long-Term Decisions

When it comes to taking medium and long-term design decisions, the mental model of the First Principle turns out to be a great tool. Feedback is constantly sent to designers, either from users or other teams. One approach to make sense of all this information coming towards you as a designer would be to go for the 5 whys. The immediate tendency might be to take the proposed solution as it is while asking the ‘’why’’ question will take you to the underlying problem. Once it becomes clear to you what a user was actually struggling with, all of these proposals can go on a list of innovations, which later on can be filtered through data-based user research. 

  • Short-term

To a certain extent, our brains don't really need a lot of help when it comes to making quick decisions. Our hunter-gatherer brains are wired to seek short-term gains rather than long-term investments. In economics, this concept is called hyperbolic discounting. It's an unfortunate shortcoming of human instincts that strongly favors smaller and quicker gains over more substantial benefits in the long run. 

However, there's a great principle that can help us put into perspective whether a decision will benefit immediately, in the short term, and in the long term — it's called the 10/10/10 rule. When in doubt, ask yourself:

  • How will we feel about it 10 minutes from now?
  • How about 10 months from now?
  • How about 10 years from now?

Make short-term decisions using the ICE model. When facing many options needing prioritization, score each on three variables using a scale of 1-10:  

  • How much positive Impact the option would have if it succeeded?
  • The confidence you have that this option will succeed if you attempt it.
  • How easy (low resource, low time) it would be to pursue this option.

Multiple the three variable scores by each other to get your final ICE score. Repeat this exercise for each option you're considering, then rank all the options by their ICE scores.

  • Immediate

A very popular mental model commonly used to make immediate day-to-day decisions is called the Eisenhower Matrix. It involves creating a 2x2 grid that marks actions as "important" and "urgent." This way, you can label events as important and urgent, important but non-urgent, unimportant but urgent, and unimportant and non-urgent.

Important and urgent things are to be done as soon as possible, important and non-urgent things are to be planned for a later time, and non-important and urgent tasks should be delegated. Finally, non-important and non-urgent things should be eliminated entirely. 

Mixed-Up Mental Model

A mixed-up mental model is when the user confuses mental models and fails to recognize or understand important differences between parts of a system that are similar. This confusion is where many usability problems can be seen. 

A study by the Nielsen Norman Group found a series of common mental models that users often confuse: 

  • Browser commands vs. commands in a web-based app
  • Local vs. remote (“cloud”) information
  • Different log-in and password options
  • Windows inside an operating system vs. inside a browser
  • Windows vs. applications
  • Icons vs. applications

One of the most familiar examples of a mixed-up model is the Google search feature. Users are often unsure of which field to use to begin a search — the search field on the website itself of the URL search bar. Frequently, users will enter a search for a website (knowing the website’s URL) and select the link rather than entering the site’s URL in the URL search bar.

When websites and apps offer too many search input options, it confuses the users. This is an important reason to avoid multiple search features. When faced with too many search features, the user is likely to opt for the one that appears to be the one closest to their mental model, which may not be the one that functions as they’re expecting. 

Mental Models in Different Industries in Short

Starting from an individual level, going through family-owned businesses and up to big companies, decision-making processes are constantly present in how we run life or organizations.

The base of any decision stands on data, previous experiences, and the ability to detach from our personal filters (or cognitive biases). But what applies to personal life might not apply to the business world or science or vice-versa. Each industry and sector of our lives requires the mental model that fits right. 

The world looks the way it does due to some basic principles of physics. Outside of these mental models, everything would be chaotic. The theory of relativity, reciprocity, or inertia shows that the world is constantly giving us feedback and that one can not fully detach from reality and formulate it in a 100% objective way. 

In biology, mental models such as natural selection and ecosystems help the world get a grasp of its frailty, interdependence, and how compared to human beings, outside of any emotion, the only thing taking the species forward is the ability to adapt.

In the next section, we’ll take a deeper dive into which mental models apply to different industries. 

Real-World Examples of Big Mental Models

In Physics

What sets apart ordinary people from extraordinary ones is mindset — mindset, habits, and the mental models they choose to adopt in decision-making processes. In 2002, when Elon Musk enrolled in sending rockets to Mars, which later on became the aerospace company SpaceX, he was faced with a great challenge in that there was an astronomical cost attached to this mission of purchasing a rocket, up to $65 million. Instead of going for an analogy approach, he embraced a physics mental model, namely the First Principles. Deconstructing the whole manufacturing process, he realized that a smart and more cost-effective strategy would be to purchase the raw materials and make his own rockets. 

In Business

The success of a tech or a non-tech company relies heavily on innovation. The better a company manages to predict the needs of its consumers, the greater the odds of driving both great customer satisfaction and high demand for the service or the product. A basic mental model would be the 80/20 principle where employees are expected to stick to conventional management methods 80% of the time with only 20% allocated to experimenting with management processes and innovating. 

In macroeconomics, the Supply and Demand mental model determines the price in a market. In ‘’Principles of Microeconomics,’’ Greg Mankiw offers the following introduction to Supply and Demand: ‘’When a cold snap hits Florida, the price of orange juice rises in supermarkets throughout the country. When the weather turns warm in New England every summer the price of hotel rooms in the Caribbean plummets. When a war breaks out in the Middle East, the price of gasoline in the United States rises and the price of a used Cadillac falls. What do these events have in common? They all show the workings of supply and demand.’’

The more models a company builds up and adds to its lattice, the stronger the foundation for making informed decisions. With each individual mental model, there is a new view of reality gained for the business. All these perspectives will be holding some truth, none of them will hold the complete truth. 

In Judgement & Human Nature

One of the most important and useful findings in modern psychology is the Availability Heuristic coined by Daniel Kahneman. The idea behind this bais revolves around the fact that humans tend to most easily recall the things that are most salient, frequent, or recent. This is most probably the result of our brains trying to protect us from the debilitating effects of a perfect memory. The Availability Heuristic is extremely important when it comes to memory recognition and recall in UX, both described at length by the Nielsen Norman Group.

Another important mental model that has a powerful effect on human judgment is trust and the idea that we tend to blindly trust certain groups of people — one example is our family. However, we also tend to trust people we have no familial ties to like chefs, delivery workers, plumbers, and executives. Being able to trust people allows our society to function, which is why we inherently want to trust businesses that provide us with products and services. Good UX must leverage this desire to build trustworthy relationships. 

Why Have You Never Heard of it Before?

UX design inherited a wide array of principles from psychology and cognitive sciences, and mental models are a testament to how interdisciplinary the practice is. Approaching design via mental models is a powerful tool experienced UX specialists have in their arsenal that allows them to tackle complex tasks and projects. 

Dive deeper into the mental models.

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Abdul SuleimanAbdul SuleimanChief Experience Officer

Abdul has helped over 40 Fortune 500 companies make informed user-centered design decisions through evidence-based user research and UX best practices. As an Adjunct Professor, Abdul has taught in DePaul University’s graduate UX programs and for nine other universities.

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