Mental Models

A mental model is an explanation of how something works. The phrase “mental model” is an overarching term for any concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind.

Understanding mental models is critical to creating effective and user-friendly designs as a UX designer. Mental models are the cognitive frameworks people use to understand the world around them. They shape our perceptions, expectations, and behavior and influence our interactions with products and services.

Mental models are how we understand the world. They shape not only what we think and how we understand but also the connections and opportunities we see. Mental models are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organized chunks. Mental models also guide perception and behavior. You use them as thinking tools to understand life, make decisions, and solve problems. Learning a new mental model gives you a new way to see the world—like Richard Feynman, learning a new math technique.

Mental models are one of the most important concepts in human–computer interaction.

There are two main types of mental models that UX designers should be aware of:

1. User mental models are users’ mental models when interacting with a product or service.

2. Designer mental models are the mental models designers have about how users interact with a product or service. Understanding both types of mental models is essential to creating effective and user-friendly designs.

Mental models influence how users interact with products and services and can impact their ability to use and understand the product. By understanding the user’s mental models, designers can create products that are more intuitive and easier to use.

You can identify mental models through various research methods, such as user interviews, surveys, and observations. These methods help uncover the user’s assumptions and beliefs about how things work, which can then inform the design process.

When designing with mental models in mind, it’s important to ensure that the design is consistent with the user’s mental model. This means using language, metaphors, and visual cues that align with the user’s mental model. Additionally, designers should avoid creating interactions that contradict the user’s mental model, which can lead to confusion and frustration.

Finally, you should test the design with users to validate the mental models used in the design process. Testing can reveal whether the design aligns with the user’s mental model and effectively meets the user’s needs.

Creating that alignment requires you to design your offering based on the cognitive frameworks customers use to perceive, interpret, and make sense of the world. Customers’ mental models represent their beliefs, expectations, and assumptions about how things should work or behave, influencing their interactions with your business and its products.

Aligning a product to a customer’s mental models tends to involve some combination of the following:

1. User Research: Researching to gather insights into customers’ needs, preferences, motivations, and behaviors helps uncover their mental models and inform design decisions.

2. User-Centric Design: Designing products that resonate with customers’ mental models facilitates a smoother user experience as it builds on their existing cognitive frameworks and expectations.

3. Consistency: Maintaining consistency in design elements, terminology, and interactions helps reinforce customers’ mental models, making it easier for them to understand and navigate your product.

4. Iterative Feedback: Testing your designs to gather feedback helps to identify areas where they may not match user expectations and provides an opportunity for improvement.

5. Education and Support: Sometimes, customers’ mental models may need to be updated or expanded to fully appreciate and use your product effectively. In that case, provide clear instructions, tutorials, or customer support to help users adapt.

By aligning with customers’ mental models, businesses can create more intuitive, user-friendly experiences that are ultimately more successful in meeting their target audience’s needs and expectations.