Mental models are ideas we have about how the world works.
They help us to better understand our environment and anticipate the future.
If the experiences we design don’t align with our users’ mental models, our designs will be confusing and difficult to use.
This article looks at how to identify, apply and validate mental models in UX to ensure our designs are intuitive and easy to use.
What Are Mental Models?
A mental model is an idea we have about how the world works. They’re formed by past experience and help us anticipate the world around us.
They shape our expectations and how we interact with the world. They’re like shortcuts that help us make sense of the systems, environments, and constructs we see and interact with daily.
Most mental models are unconscious. We’ve likely never given them much thought. We’ve seen events unfold and created ideas in our heads about how they should unfold in the future.
We’ve assigned metaphors, similes, laws, and principles to these patterns and used them to help us predict and understand how events may unfold the next time we encounter them.
They give us a sense of order and control by providing us with patterns of logic. A sense of psychological safety comes with understanding the world in this predictable way.
We have mental models for everything. They help us to understand economies, science, maths, psychology, society, and everything in between.
Here are a few well-known mental models that you might have come across before:
- Cause and Effect: This is the idea that there is a relationship between events or actions, where one event causes another event to happen.
- Occam’s Razor: This is the principle that when there are multiple explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one is usually the correct one.
- Game Theory: This is the study of strategic decision-making in situations where two or more individuals or groups are competing or cooperating.
- Confirmation Bias: This is the tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.
- Cognitive Dissonance: This is the mental discomfort that arises when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or ideas.
- Anchoring: This is the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information encountered when making decisions.
- Social Proof: This is the tendency to conform to the behavior or opinions of others in a group.
- The Sunk Cost Fallacy: This is the tendency to continue investing time, money, or effort into something because of the resources already invested, even if it no longer makes rational sense to do so.
These ideas attempt to describe human behavior, psychology, and natural phenomenon. By understanding these ideas, we can make more informed decisions about how to design systems and structures to help people navigate their lives.
By understanding UX mental models, we can design experiences that better align with our user’s expectations and create experiences that are as close to intuitive as possible.
Why Are Mental Models Important in UX Design?
Digital products are tools and services that solve problems in our user’s lives by offering them the functionality to automate, speed up, and improve the tasks they need to complete.
Since they’re digital products, users typically interact with a computer to get the job done. Meaning that there is no human mediator. Just the user and a screen with images and instructions.
This means that our products are only successful if our users interpret them correctly. What they see on the screen needs to align with their understanding and expectations. The instructions they see – both implicit and explicit – need to make sense so they can complete tasks efficiently without support.
How they interpret the interfaces they see will be based on what mental models they have – or don’t have. If the user interface is completely new and they have no point of reference to help them understand it. They’ll meet the screen with confusion and quickly click away to a more familiar tool.
It goes without saying that our user interface must align with our users’ expectations. Or, we need to be able to train them to understand these interfaces quickly.
This is where mental models come in.
If we understand what mental models our users use to interpret the world around them. We can design our products based on these mental models.
Here’s an example of how a UX Designer might identify and apply a UX mental model:
Let’s say a UX designer is designing a new e-commerce website. The designer recognizes that users have a UX mental model of how online shopping works – they expect to be able to search for products, view product information, add items to a cart, and checkout securely.
The designer applies this UX mental model by creating an e-commerce user interface that aligns with users expectations. They use a clear and prominent search bar to allow users to easily find the products they are looking for, provide detailed product descriptions and images to help users make informed purchase decisions, and offer a streamlined and intuitive checkout process with secure payment options.
The designer also ensures that the e-commerce website is consistent with users’ mental models of how online shopping should work, such as providing clear and transparent pricing information, offering customer support options, and allowing users to track their orders.
By aligning the product design of the e-commerce website with users’ mental models, the UX designer helps to create a user-friendly and trustworthy digital product that meets users’ needs and expectations and encourages them to make purchases on the website.
This means that the designer’s ability to identify and align with the user mental model is crucial in designing intuitive user experiences for our customers.
How to Identify Mental Models in UX Research
We identify users existing mental models by interviewing them and watching them perform tasks. By listening carefully and observing.
It’s important to note that what a user says, and what they do, can sometimes conflict. This is why we don’t take our direction from what users say. Rather we take note of their comments, observe their behaviors, and try to find misalignments that could point to deeper unconscious mental models at play.
When users expect something to behave a certain way, it’s usually because they have an existing mental model for it. Or, if they tell you what their expectation is, and then behave differently, it can help us identify any dissonance that teaches us a user’s true motivations and beliefs.
So by asking them, “How do you expect this to work?” you’ll learn if they already have a mental model or not.
By following up with, “and why is that? What’s your frame of reference? Where have you seen something like this before?” You can draw from their past experience to understand how they’re modeling this situation.
In some instances, the user won’t be able to articulate their expectations, or they may give an answer that they think you want to hear. That’s why it’s important to cross-reference these findings by observing behavior and interviewing a reasonable number of users to see if the insight is consistent across the segment for each user persona.
When a user uses a metaphor or a simile, that’s a great indicator of when they’re using a mental model.
Or, when they have definite reasons as to why something should be a certain way, that’s because their existing mental models are so strong that trying to change them would cause frustration and confusion for them.
Here are a few methods for uncovering a user mental model:
- Participatory Design: By asking the user to build and sketch ideas, we get good insights from observing the choices they make, where they focus, and which parts they prioritize. The aim of this exercise is to observe the user’s thought processes in action. Not to develop the ideas they produce.
- User Interviews: By asking open-ended questions about the user’s past experiences and expectations of the future, we can get insight into their beliefs and how they make decisions. This can lead us toward a better understanding of any underlying mental models.
- Open Card Sorts: Card sorts are a great way to get an understanding of how users perceive the relationships between different topics and features. By asking users to organize items into categories, put the items in an order, and give the categories a name. We create plenty of opportunities to uncover the users existing mental models relating to information architecture.
Notice they’re all qualitative methods because we need to be there to notice their behavior. These methods allow us to observe users closely and probe for deeper insight.
Users won’t be familiar with the term mental model, and they likely aren’t too aware of the programs they’re running to interpret the world.
That’s why a skilled facilitator is needed to help the user articulate their experiences until the mental model presents itself.
How to Apply Mental Models in UX Design
Once you’ve uncovered the users mental model, you’ll need to decide which ones are meaningful to you.
Some of the user’s mental models will be actionable and will help you make decisions.
Others will just be interesting insights but won’t provide much practicality.
The questions you need to be asking are:
- How can I use this information to improve the product?
- How do we address the gap between the users mental model and our conceptual model?
- How does the users mental model affect their behavior and decision-making process?
- What impact will incorporating these mental models have on the overall user experience?
- Are there any potential challenges to implementing these mental models into the design?
- Can we identify any patterns or trends from different user groups or demographics?
- How can we validate these mental models through user testing and feedback?
- What other insights or information can we gather to supplement our understanding?
- Are there any ethical considerations to incorporating these mental models into the design?
Once you’ve uncovered a mental model, it will be useful in many circumstances and help you make many decisions.
Here are three common ways mental models help us improve designs:
Navigation: Mental models can help designers align with the users expectations of how things should be grouped, making it easier for users to find what they’re looking for and navigate through the product or service.
Labeling: The terminology used in a design not only helps users to identify things, but it can also set up metaphors and environments that relate to how the user understands the world. For instance, the use of a folder metaphor indicates to the user that there are files inside it, while the use of a search bar metaphor implies that it finds things for you, and a shopping cart metaphor indicates that it holds your purchase items.
Interaction: Ideally, users should be able to interact with a product design without thinking too much about how to do it. A good mental model can indicate to users how to interact with a design based on stories and experiences they know from the past. For example, the use of accordions implies that they can be expanded and collapsed, a wizard implies that it will walk you through a process, a button implies that it will make something happen, and a call icon implies that it will phone someone.
Although these are relatively simple examples, aligning with these mental models can significantly impact the user experience, especially when designing new functionality.
For example, let’s say your users have a mental model that task lists should be ordered by priority or time sensitivity.
In that case, aligning your task list to this mental model can make it more intuitive and user-friendly.
For instance, you could display the task list as a calendar if it’s time-sensitive, or order it by priority if that’s how users expect it to be organized.
However, it’s worth noting that some mental models may not be as obvious and may require more effort to uncover and apply in your product design process. It’s essential to continue researching and gathering user feedback to identify these deeper mental models and use them to improve your product or service.
How to Validate your Mental Models
Once we’ve uncovered a range of different mental models, we need to validate them through user research.
We’re not validating that the mental models exist. We’re validating that we’ve interpreted and applied them correctly and that others understand how we’ve used them.
That’s because usually, our discoveries are based on our observations.
We might have thought we’ve identified a mental model, but maybe we’ve projected our assumptions and biases onto them.
If you design based on an invalid mental model, you can be sure that you’ll confuse the user.
The best thing to do is validate it early before you’ve invested much time and resources in your design.
Here are a few easy ways to validate mental models:
Closed card sorting: Closed card sorting is a great way to validate ideas about navigation that you discovered via open card sorts. This method involves giving users a set of predetermined categories and asking them to sort cards into those categories. By comparing their responses to your mental model, you can confirm whether your product design aligns with the user’s mental model.
5-second click test: The 5-second click test is a quick and easy way to validate ideas about layout, labeling, and interactivity. This method involves showing users a design for just five seconds and then asking them to recall specific details about it. By measuring their ability to recall key information, you can gauge whether your design is intuitive and memorable.
Usability testing: Usability testing is an effective way to understand if your interface makes sense and if the user journeys flow in a way that the user expects. This method involves observing users as they complete specific tasks with your product or service and recording any issues or challenges they encounter. By analyzing their behavior and feedback, you can identify areas where your design can be improved to better align with the user’s mental model.
Monitoring success metrics: Monitoring success metrics is a valuable way to track the long-term impact of your design on the user experience. By analyzing metrics such as conversion rates, engagement levels, and customer satisfaction, you can gain insights into whether your design has been successful in meeting the user’s needs and their expectation. If you see positive trends over time, you can confidently assume that your design aligns with the user’s mental model.
Once you’ve identified your mental models and made some design decisions, it should be fairly obvious which user research method to use to validate them.
For example, if the mental model you uncovered leads you to make decisions about the site’s information architecture, then a closed card sort or tree test will help validate it best.
If the mental model leads you to re-design a product’s dashboard, then maybe usability testing or a click test would help you out the most.
Whatever method you choose, by validating your mental models in advance, you increase your chances of success and reduce the risk of changes further down the track.
- Mental models are ideas we have about how the world works and are formed by past experiences.
- They help us anticipate, predict, and understand our surroundings.
- If we align our design to the user expectations after having identified the right mental model, we can produce a more intuitive user interface design.
- Mental model examples include Cause and Effect, Occam’s Razor, Game Theory, Confirmation Bias, Anchoring, Social Proof, and The Sunk Cost Fallacy.
- If the UX Designer and the user have a different mental model, then the design will be confusing and difficult to interact with.
- UX design applies mental models to make interfaces that are closest to intuitive as possible.
- Uncovering mental models involves Participatory Design, user interviews, and Open Card Sorts.
- Applying mental models can improve navigation, labeling, and interaction in UX design.
- Mental models need to be validated through user research and user feedback for a better product/service.
- Mental models can help to shape the design strategy, and inform principles and design guidelines.