A Straight Forward, Straight Talking Guide to Mental Models

You may have read up on mental models and still be left thinking, eh? We’re not surprised; there’s lots of explanations out there using flowery language that makes it all sound rather convoluted. But the thing is, mental models shouldn’t be complicated. At Bunnyfoot, we like to practice what we preach. So, here’s a straight forward, straight talking guide to mental models.

So… what is a mental model?

A mental model is one possible way of approaching a situation; it’s how a person expects a scenario be played out when an event occurs. When we think about this in a UX sense, your customers call on their beliefs and previous experiences to form a best guess – and this informs how they will interact with your service. To put it simply, it’s what people have in their heads.

We all have more than one mental model. In fact, we have many! These mental models are formed over time and are made up of the things we learn from numerous interactions we undertake throughout our day-to-day lives. To quote the Monty Python guys, “we’re all different, we’re all individuals” – and that’s certainly true when it comes to mental models. We each have our own mental models for different situations because we live different lives. We also have different mental models for the same situation: for example, when it comes to booking a holiday I will have a different mental model to my 64-year-old neighbour and his will be different to someone in their early 20s.

How you book a holiday will depend on your mental model for doing so – and will be very different to that of others.

Real-world examples

Let’s think of some real-world examples. Imagine turning a light on in your house. Do you turn the switch up or down? Here in the UK, it’s most likely down, however if you’re in the US it’s up. Weird, huh? What about when you jump in your car and go to start it? We’re used to putting the key in the ignition to the right of the steering wheel, but most modern cars are opting for a start button to the left of the steering wheel somewhere on the dash. This kept catching me out when I first got my new car, but after time, it became the norm. And so, my mental model had adapted.

It’s important to note that mental models tend to be fairly deep rooted, and they can also be flawed or somewhat archaic. Nobody likes change, and so trying to coerce users to a new, more effective way of thinking will take time and effort; if you’re trying to do this, then you better have a strong value proposition and effective methods of persuasion. Furthermore, if you’re going to try to change people’s mental models, do it with micro interactions and delighters so as not to scare people off – remember ‘softly softly chachee monkey’.

How do I create a mental model?

While the term ‘mental model’ refers to an intangible process that goes on in our heads, this mental model manifests into a tangible deliverable – and this is what we as UX professionals hand over to our clients.

A mental model diagram is the visual way of showing what your user is thinking. It covers the user’s needs, the tasks they must complete to reach their goal, and how the service addresses these needs with functionality or content. As is the case with all good UX research, mental models are based on facts, evidence gathered from research activities such as depth interviews and customer surveys. Once the research findings have been analysed, we can then start considering typical scenarios that a user may follow to achieve the overall goal.

What a mental model might look like

Mental model diagrams typically follow a linear path, visually displayed on a horizontal plane. The scenario can be broken up into what Indy Young calls ‘mental spaces’ in her book ‘Mental Models, Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behaviour’. Mental spaces are moments within a scenario where the user is in a mode. Going back to the example of booking a holiday, this might be ‘research holidays’ or ‘book my holiday’, these mental spaces form the blueprint upon which we can build the mental model.

For each of these mental spaces, we need to consider the tasks that fill that mental space. Likely tasks when researching holidays might include ‘get recommendations’, ‘visit the travel agents’ or even ‘decide on a destination’. In turn, each of these tasks has subtasks that are undertaken as part of that activity.

An example of a mental model for booking a holiday.

You will see (in the image above) that the mental model is reflected below the timeline as something called a ‘content model’. This content model shows how the site currently addresses the needs of the user, and also highlights opportunities where there are gaps in content and functionality. Content may address one specific need, or a few.

Why use mental models in the UX process?

Quite simply, mental models help ensure that the development process doesn’t lose sight of the user’s needs by:

  • Distilling all the information gathered from research into something digestible
  • Acting as great communication tools that can be referred to throughout the process, helping everyone focus on the needs of the users
  • Providing a visual representation of how needs are currently addressed – and how they will be in the future
  • Informing content strategy and the resulting information architecture
  • Ensuring design decisions are based on user research rather than design by committee

Mental models shouldn’t be difficult to get your head around; just take a step back and consider the bigger picture – then hone in on the detail. This will ensure that you and your team have an accurate, usable and more importantly actionable tool to use as part of your design process, resulting in your service delivering a great user experience.

We’ve been developing mental models (and many other research / design tools) for over 17 years! If you need help – we’d love to talk to you!

Want to learn more?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

About Bunnyfoot

We are psychologists, interaction and design experts, researchers, usability specialists. We cover Web, software, mobile, print, service design and more.
More about us