Leveraging Mental Models in Product Design

Post inspired by a great article written by Miklos Philips on Medium

One of the most interesting discussions I recently had was on the topic of Mental Models in product design. As more and more designers and developers enter the product design field the level of software and usability change increases.

In most cases, designers are changing the software:

  • simply to make things look better

  • occasionally to work better

but the question needs to be asked are these changes what your customer will recognize and want. Which brings us to the topic of mental models and how important is it for designers to respect when creating or changing software?


What are mental models?

A mental model is an explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person's intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences.

Why they are mental models important?

Mental models are important because users will plan and predict future actions within a system based on their mental models. Designers can tap into users mental models so that their products communicate their function through their form.

 

Why designers need to learn, adapt and advance?

A mental model is internal to each user's brain, and different users might construct different mental models of the same user interface. ... Because designers know too much, they form wonderful mental models of their own creations, leading them to believe that each feature is easy to understand.

“Individual users each have their own mental models, and different users may construct different models of the same user interface. Further, one of usability’s big dilemmas is the common gap between the designers’ and users’ mental models.” 

They are the beliefs that a user holds about any given system or interaction. This is important because users will plan and predict future actions within a system based on their mental models. Designers can tap into users mental models so that their products communicate their function through their form.

Leveraging Mental Models in Product Design

Designers are immersed in design projects and regularly form mental models of their own. They also acquire them from common interaction design patterns utilized by other designers. In a way, this can create a “designer bubble.” It’s easy to fall into the trap of designing something that makes sense to other designers, but which nevertheless may confuse the average user.

People have unique mental models generally formed by education, experience, age, and culture. The average user is not as well-versed in the subtle UI patterns familiar to designers living in the aforementioned “designer bubble.” In order to empathize with users and design for maximum usability, designers need to shrink the gap that exists between the designer and user mental models.

In order to align with users’ existing mental models, the design process should incorporate an understanding of users’ expectations around the way a product is going to work. This is especially important as part of UX research methods used to uncover user needs and pain points.

 

Looking to our future while leveraging our past. From door handles to car windows to touch screen devices to computer interfaces these constants which humans create mental models for based on daily interactions are essential to understand, leverage, and iterate on when designing for change or building something new.

Recognizable mental models for a driver. Image provided by Digital Ventures.

Recognizable mental models for a driver. Image provided by Digital Ventures.

UI mental models for navigation.

UI mental models for navigation.

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Mental Models