7 Examples Of Mental Models For Better Design Leadership

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Mental models aren’t just for helping us make design decisions.

We can use them to supercharge our productivity, increase our effectiveness, and help us navigate tricky leadership situations.

In this article, I’ll share 7 mental models, and 3 specific examples for each so you can take them and put them into action right away.

#1 The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect says that high expectations lead to improved performance.

It comes from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with a perfectly beautiful statue. So much so, that the statue came to life.

The Pygmalion Effect is the idea that high expectations lead to improved performance.

Psychologists have presented the idea that a teacher’s expectations of their students, affected the student’s performance.

In a study, teachers were given false information that some students in their class were highly intellectual and would perform better than others.

In actual fact, the students were chosen at random, but the teacher’s expectations influenced their behavior towards these students and resulted in higher academic performance.

The conclusion is that high expectations lead to high performance, while low expectations lead to low performance, both leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Put The Pygmalion Effect to Use:

  • Set high expectations – Communicate your expectations clearly, express confidence in your team’s abilities, and set challenging goals.
  • Offer growth opportunities – Show people you have confidence in them and increase their confidence in themselves by offering growth opportunities.
  • Give constructive feedback – Give regular, helpful feedback that can be actioned, highlight their strengths, and build their weaknesses.

#2 The Availability Heuristic

The Availability Heuristic says that people make decisions based on information that’s easy to recall, rather than a careful consideration of all the available information.

For example, if someone watches news reports of plane crashes, they’re likely to overestimate the likelihood of a plane crash occurring, even though statistically, flying is very safe.

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that people use to make decisions based on information that is easy to recall.

This bias happens for a few reasons.

Firstly, the news reports are in recent memory, and therefore, they’re easier to recall.

Secondly, the news reports use strong imagery, and powerful language, and play on the viewer’s emotions which makes it even more memorable.

This heuristic can inspire us to create more memorable communications. It’s also something we need to be aware of when conducting research and making decisions.

Put The Availability Heuristic to Use:

  • Use visualization and storytelling to communicate insights – Use visuals, narratives, and engaging language to communicate ideas and insights.
  • Encourage diverse perspectives – Seek out information from diverse sources and include people with different perspectives when making important decisions.
  • Avoid basing decisions on anecdotal evidence – When making important decisions, always check your sources and make sure they’re diverse.

#3 Parkinson’s Law

One of my favorites, Parkinson’s Law, states that work expands to fill the time allotted for it.

It was first articulated when a British historian observed that bureaucracies often grew in size and complexity, even when there was no increase in the amount of work that needed to be done.

Parkinson’s law is the principle that work expands to fill the time allotted for it.

The bureaucracies would expand to consume all available resources and justify their existence.

You’ve probably heard people say, “We better use this budget, or else we’ll lose it.”

Parkinson’s Law has since been observed more broadly to include work, productivity, and time management.

The principle suggests that setting strict deadlines and time limits can be an effective way to increase productivity and efficiency.

Think about timeboxing, false deadlines, and timed brainstorms. They’re all designed to make sure we do only what is necessary before reassessing and moving forward.

Put Parkinson’s Law to Use:

  • Set clear and realistic tasks – By setting clear goals, you keep your team (and yourself) focused and motivated.
  • Break down large projects into small tasks – Big projects can be overwhelming and lead to procrastination and inefficiency. Break them down. Assign small tasks.
  • Encourage time management and prioritize tasks – Teach your team how to prioritize their tasks, do your best to help them reduce meetings, and get more focus time.

#4 Stages of Competence

The 4 Stages of Competence are useful to help us evaluate the skill level of a teammate before we assign tasks and choose a management style.

They describe the journey of an individual’s skill development and learning process.

The 4 Stages of Competence are a model to describe the skill development journey of an individual.

The four stages are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – A person who is unaware of their lack of skill or knowledge will need a hands-on, directive management style.
  2. Conscious incompetence – When they’re aware of their lack of skill and begin to recognize the importance of developing it, they could get overwhelmed and need support but can start to direct their own thinking.
  3. Conscious competence – When they have the skills and knowledge they need, they can direct their own work with regular feedback and support.
  4. Unconscious competence – When they know what they’re doing and don’t need to think about it, you can assign them a task and let them run with it.

Put the Stages of Competence to use:

  • Assess a person’s skill level before assigning tasks – Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget. Ask someone, what’s your experience with this? rather than drop it on their lap.
  • Create a culture of continuous learning – Help team members recognize their own levels so they can build learning plans and improve their skills.
  • Set realistic goals and expectations – Realistic goals that align with people’s skill levels will determine their motivation levels. Make it manageable for them.

#5 The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect says that a positive impression in one area influences our opinions and feelings about other areas.

We tend to judge things as all good, or all bad.

The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias that causes us to judge things as all good or all bad.

The effect can be positive or negative.

A simple example is if we see someone in a photo that’s well-dressed, well-groomed, and happy. We might assume that they’re a good person, or that they’re smart or healthy.

This error in judgment is a reflection of our own preferences, prejudices, and beliefs.

It is important to recognize that the Halo Effect leads to very biased thinking, and we should make an effort to look at individuals or products objectively, considering all relevant factors, rather than just one outstanding trait.

Put The Halo Effect to use:

  • Encourage objective evaluation – Encourage your team to evaluate other people’s ideas objectively and not be swayed by the bandwagon effect or gimmicks.
  • Make your presentations memorable – Present your most important ideas as best you can, and focus discussions on the value, the benefits, and the positive potential.
  • Use data and metrics to evaluate performance – When measuring your own progress, or benchmarking against competitors, use data, not your own opinion.

#6 The Pareto Principle

Don’t overlook this one. I’m sure it’s familiar, but don’t underestimate its power.

This principle states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

The Pareto Principle is the idea that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.

It means that roughly 20% of your actions bring 80% of the results.

You can use this to your advantage by only focusing on the 20% and delegating the 80%.

This kind of focus can supercharge efficiency when you’re committed to it.

It also likely means that 20% of your research brings 80% of the insights.

20% of your processes create 80% of the productivity.

I’m just throwing things out there now, but give it some thought and see how these ideas can improve your workflows and efficiency.

Put The Pareto Principle to use:

  • Focus on the 20%, delegate the 80% – Decide which tasks you do that are high value and cannot be compromised. Focus on those exclusively.
  • Review your processes – Look at your processes and workflows, and think about which of them could be eliminated to increase efficiency in other areas.
  • Focus on 20% of your stakeholders – Which of your stakeholders are the most influential, and which give the best input, focus on these more than the others.

#7 Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor says that all things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.

It’s used in science, philosophy, and problem-solving to eliminate unlikely explanations and focus on the most plausible ones.

Occam’s Razor is a principle that says the simplest solution is typically the best.

It’s used in hypothesis testing and theory building and is based on the idea that the simplest explanation is most likely to be true because it requires fewer assumptions and is less vulnerable to error.

It can be used in design to simplify products and features, as well as speed up decision-making when evaluating and selecting design options.

Put Occam’s Razor to use:

  • Select design options – Use Occam’s Razor to rule out any designs that are unnecessarily complex, and ask yourself which is the simplest execution.
  • Streamline communication – Encourage your team to simplify their communications, and focus on the core messages to make more impactful points and presentations.
  • Simplify processes and documentation – Look at your processes and consider which are the most convoluted, is there a simpler way?

What Are Mental Models? And Why Should We Care?

Mental models are the ways we perceive and understand how the world works.

Users existing mental models are based on past experience, expectation, and existing knowledge.

We all have 100’s of mental models that help us to navigate and understand the world around us.

Since User Experience Design involves creating products or systems that are easy to use. It’s important that the UX designer understands how users perceive and interact with a product.

And since UX Design Leadership is all about decision-making and understanding complexity, the right mental model can help us in this area too.

What’s the Difference Between a Mental Model and a Conceptual Model?

A users ‘mental model’ is the idea they have in their minds about HOW the world works. The designers ‘conceptual model’ is their idea about how it SHOULD work.

If the UX Designer incorrectly identifies the user mental model during user research, their conceptual model will be way off, and the user interface and interaction design will be confusing and difficult to use.

This is where user testing helps to validate our user research and confirm we’ve identified the correct UX Mental Model.

How Are Mental Models Used in Design Strategy?

Understanding user expectations is critical to all aspects of product design, from information architecture to user interface design.

Before we make any design decisions, we need to have identified our user persona and took the time during user interviews, and UX research to understand the user’s previous experience with our product domain.

We then need to consider what this might mean for the decisions we make throughout the design process about how to design the digital product.

If we’re to design a new mental model, we need to use design thinking to identify the user’s expectations and then use usability testing to make sure the two align so that the design is intuitive and feels familiar.

Key Takeaways

  1. A mental model is a term from cognitive psychology that is give to the ideas we have about how the world should work.
  2. In UX and UI Design, they’re very important because if the user has a different mental model that doesn’t align with the way we’ve design the product, then they’ll find the interaction confusing and difficult to use.
  3. In UX Design we can use mental models to improve the user experience, but we can also use them to improve our leadership skills, decision making and problem-solving abilities.
  4. Identifying the different mental model of each user persona is important to make sure our experiences work for everyone, we can validate these through UX research.
  5. By acknowledging the biases we have, and the psychological affects that take place when we interact with other people, we can improve the way we communicate, make decisions and work together.

📸 Shoutout to Clark Tibbs for the cover image

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Jack O'Donoghue Avatar