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A Researcher's Guide to Mental Models (And How to Use Them Wisely)

Mental models can help you understand your users on an even deeper level. Here's how you can get started using them. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Thumy Phan

I first learned about mental models from Indi Young and have never looked back.

When I started my career in user research, I quickly learned about personas and customer journey maps as visualizations of how users thought and behaved. However, I wanted more than this. I felt that, within every phase in a customer journey map or overarching goal in a persona, there were many different steps and opportunities potentially leading to an improved experience.

That’s where mental models came into the picture. They were the way I was able to move deeper into what users were thinking and feeling while they were completing activities and goals.

Jump to:

What are mental models?

A mental model is a person's intuitive understanding of how something should function in the real world. They are formed based on experience with everyday situations, activities, and tasks.

A great definition of mental models is from Susan Carey's 1986 journal article, Cognitive science and science education, which says:

"A mental model represents 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."

A great example of a mental model is the process one goes through when waking up, getting ready for work, and commuting. Most people "streamline" this process and create certain expectations on how this routine should go.

This standardized routine is also why we get so mad when things don't go "our way.” Maybe you ran out of toothpaste, the hot water isn't working in your apartment, or your subway gets stuck in the underground vortex between Brooklyn and Manhattan. It’s frustrating when it happens—and that’s because of our mental models.

These models also exist when people interact with apps, products, or services. Before even using your app, users might have a mental model based on the concept your app represents.

For example, if you develop an online shopping app, there is a good chance your users have a mental model around online shopping. They are expecting a specific sequence of events that align with their past experiences and their ideal flow.

If you design a user experience that aligns with these mental models, you bring delight. If not, there will be gaps in the experience, potentially leading to disappointment, frustration, and disengagement.

The most important aspect of mental models is that they are beliefs based on cognition, rather than facts. Everyone has a unique mental model, but there are common patterns across particular models, which enable us to create seamless experiences.

The​ ​challenge is to ensure that you build a product with the users' mental model in mind. If you make a product/service that aligns with most mental models, you will be creating a frictionless experience. If you go against these mental models, you will create frustration.

Why are mental models relevant?

Mental models help us understand the unconscious thoughts our users are going through while they are completing important activities or goals. With this information, we can tap in beyond what users are saying they would like to achieve, and understand their current processes.

We can improve upon what they are currently doing, instead of creating something completely new. Here are several other reasons why conducting mental model research is essential:

  • Understanding usability problems. If the design of your product/service does not consider the user's mental model, the product/service will be challenging to learn and use. People will be more prone to making mistakes and failing tasks.
  • Helping users with new ideas. If you are coming up with a product/service that is new to the market, you will need to understand the current mental model so that you can change it. The Kindle is a great example, as most people were used to physical books and did not have a mental model of reading books on an eReader. With this, you can create an onboarding session to help users adapt to the new product/service.
  • Improving current processes. If you can dig deeper into someone's current process, you can learn how to improve it. Without a current understanding of how someone is thinking about something, you can't know how to optimize the experience. By understanding how mental models shape and influence behavior, you can ensure a more effective and seamless product/service.
  • Optimizing information architecture. If people naturally look for something in the wrong place, then move it to the place where they look for it. If you are consistently placing buttons, navigation, or information in a place where people are not expecting, this will lead to high amounts of frustration.

When there is a clash between the product/service and a user's mental model, it is much better to change the design to meet their models. In the vast majority of cases, this is going to be the best action to take.

By learning the user's mental models and not relying on your mental model, a product/service can emulate them through the UI and create an intuitive experience. This experience will result in superior user experience. The user can focus on their task rather than learning a new model.

A strong (but tragic) example of mismatched mental models:

'Star Trek' actor Anton Yelchin died last year when a Jeep pinned him. He didn't realize the Jeep was in neutral when he got out, so it rolled backward and crushed him. This accident was one of more than 250 related to confusion over the design of the Jeep's gearshift. Many believed the gearshift should move up and down to shift into reverse, drive, and park. This is how most gearshifts functioned and was their mental model. It was how people believed it should work, based on previous experiences and models.

However, this gear shift worked differently. It used push-buttons and always returned to the center position. The fact that the gearshift's actual functionality was different from users' mental models caused issues. In this case, death.

How to create a mental model

To create a mental model, seek to understand what users are doing to achieve specific goals. Some questions you might ask:

  • What are the tasks they are completing (or trying to finish)?
  • What are the overarching goals people are trying to achieve with these tasks?
  • What is the current end-to-end 'routine' or journey people are going through
  • Where are they running into problems or frustrations during this routine or journey?
  • Once you've correctly understood the journey, what are the features or products that would support these tasks?

The first step in understanding our users' mental models is through user research. Research techniques, such as interviews and contextual inquiry, help us understand how users think about the world and products/services. These techniques help us build mental models of our users.

When thinking about doing these interviews, we want to ensure we recruit the best participants. For instance, if we want to understand how people get ready for and commute to work, we want to recruit people who have an office job and are also commuting.

So we want to understand how people are getting ready for work in the morning, and then how they are getting to work.

The goals for these interviews would be:

  • to understand how they are currently getting ready for and community to work
  • goals they are trying to achieve during the process
  • pain points or frustrations they encountered during this process
  • how they wanted to feel while getting prepared/commuting to work

By talking with users about these goals, we would have a deeper understanding of how they think about and currently act on this concept.

The best (and really, only) question I ask to prompt these types of conversations is:

"Tell me about the last time..."

So, in the above example, I would start the conversation with: "Tell me about the last time you got ready for work, starting with when you woke up." From there on, I am digging into each step to get as much detail as possible and to understand any problems that have occurred.

The outcome: Mental Model Diagram

After you take notes based on your research sessions, you can start to see the patterns through affinity diagramming. With this information, you can break up the user's journeys into phases, and list the different tasks they complete under each stage. Here is an example:

From Indi Young’s Mental Models

You can see there is a line in the middle. Everything above the line is what users are doing during that particular stage. Everything below the line is the support users need during each of these tasks. You can then color-code the notes below the line to say where you currently support the users, and where there are gaps in your product/service. By diagramming the mental models, you can easily visualize:

  1. How your current offerings do or don't support users
  2. How to build user-centered products/services and strategy moving forward

Mental models are an excellent tool to use in addition to personas and journey maps, or they can be used on their own to create in-depth awareness, understanding, and empathy of how your users think about the world.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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