UX/UI LAB

Conforming and building mental models and the crucial role it plays on the success of a product.

Article Written By Nicole Gouws


Let’s start off by defining mental models and human perception. Kenneth Craik (WHO WAS HE) hypothesized that mental models in the mid-40s was a general clarification of human thought, taking into account the way people relate to the world through mental models. Basically, a mental model is a person’s intuitive understanding of how something functions based on his or her past encounters, exposure to information, and sound judgment.

What people perceive is completely subjective and depends on the way things appear to them. For example, imagine that someone tells a kid a frightening story about swimming. The child will hold that image in his mind for a long time and, thus, think of swimming as a dangerous thing; That is until external forces contradict that idea and he learns to see things differently. Similarly, for some, investing in stocks is a risky affair. A person’s mental model that investing in the stock market is risky guides that person’s decision not to invest in stocks.

We as individuals draw bits of knowledge from our everyday experience with systems and services. We associate impressions about how things work and form our mental models. When user behaviors depend on people’s learnings about a specific sequence of activities or performing certain tasks, their mental model guides their understanding of how a framework functions. That is why it’s important to understand that mental models might be causing you usability problems.  


Mental models that cause usability problems

Many of the usability problems observed in studies stem from users having mixed-up mental models that confuse different parts of the system.

For example, the word “Google” is usually the top query at other search engines, and words like “Yahoo” and “Bing” score high on Google. Why, oh why, do people search for a website if they already know its name? Why not just type, say, www.bing.com into the URL field?

The reason is that many users have never formed an accurate model of how the “type-in boxes” on their screen function. When they type stuff into a box, they sometimes get where they want to go.

This common problem to not distinguish between similar type-in boxes is a key reason for the guideline to avoid multiple search features. When a website or intranet has several search engines on the same page, users often don’t know the difference.

They’ll enter their question into whatever box catches their fancy and assume that the site doesn’t have the answer if nothing comes back.

Another problem that designers and developer design and implement interfaces for users and they have very different mental models, and you have to understand the users’ model to design something that works in the real world.

Users don’t just confuse search fields; many less-techy users don’t understand the differences between many other common features:

  • Operating-system Windows vs. browser windows
  • A window vs. an application
  • Icons vs. applications
  • Browser commands vs. native commands in a web-based app
  • Local vs. remote information

Different passwords and log-in options (users often log in to other websites as if they were logging in to their email)

A real case example of mental model problems. Netflix Metal Model Inertia:

Netflix old business model was a mail-order service for renting movies on DVD. However, Netflix worked differently than typical e-commerce sites, which caused problems when the service was tested with new users on site usability.

When users added a film to their Netflix “queue,” they used a mental model of an e-commerce shopping cart to predict what would happen and to their surprise nothing happened.
Adding stuff to the cart didn´t cause you to receive that item in the mail. You first had to proceed through checkout and confirm that you want it.

In reality, however, Netflix would immediately mail you the DVD that’s on top of the queue. Later, when you mail it back, they’ll send you the next movie in your queue, without you having to go to the site and do anything. That’s why they have the “queue” feature instead of a standard shopping cart.

There’s great inertia in users’ mental models: stuff that people know well tends to stick, even when it’s not helpful. This alone is surely an argument for being conservative and not coming up with new interaction styles.

On the other hand, sometimes you do need to innovate, but it’s best to do so only in cases where the new approach is clearly vastly superior to the old, well-known ways. Netflix is obviously a successful company, and its innovation of sending customers a steady stream of movies from a queue was a major reason for this success.

When you do something new on the web, you face an immense design challenge: How do you explain the new concept such that users have a living chance of constructing a valid mental model of the site?

It’s amazing how one misconception can thwart users throughout an entire session and cause them to systematically misinterpret everything that happens on the site. Through failure after failure, they never question their basic assumptions. This is yet another argument for complying with preexisting user expectations whenever possible. If you don’t, then make certain that you’re clearly explaining what you’re doing — while also realizing that you face the added challenge of users’ reluctance to read very much.

However, not all hope is lost there is some easy methods we can implement to better understand users mental models

How mental models can help you make sense of usability problems

It’s important to know that understanding the concept of mental models can help you make sense of usability problems in your design. When you see people make mistakes on your site, the reason is often because they’ve formed an erroneous mental model. Although you might be unable to change the UI at that point, you can teach users a more accurate mental model at an earlier stage of the user experience. Or, you might have to acknowledge that users won’t understand certain distinctions and then stop making those distinctions.

In case of a mental-model mismatch, you basically have two different options:

Make the system conform to users’ mental models — assuming most models are similar. This is the approach we usually recommend to fix IA problems: If people look for something in the wrong place, then move it to the place where they look for it. Card sorting is a useful way to discover users’ mental model of an information space so that you can design your navigation accordingly.

Improve users’ mental models for example, explaining things better and making labels clearer to make the UI more transparent (even though the underlying system remains unchanged).

Mental models are a key concept in the development of instructions, documentation, tutorials, demos, and other forms of user assistance. All such information must be short, while teaching the key concepts that people need to know to make sense of the overall site.

One of the main reasons why the thinking aloud method of user testing is so effective is that it gives us insights into a user’s mental model. When users verbalize what they think, believe, and predict while they use your design, you can piece together much of their mental model.

There are also more advanced knowledge-elicitation methods for gaining deeper insights into mental models, but for most design teams, a few quick think-aloud sessions will suffice.


Methods to put into practice that help you understand Metal Models

1: Observation

Observation is a crucial method of getting answers concerning people’s responses to their general surroundings. As individuals, we are well equipped to pick up detailed data about our environs through our senses.

Observation is a great way to learn things. When observing, the details we gather through our senses help us to identify similarities in our general surroundings. This further shapes our mental models. We begin seeing things in a way that upholds the rationale we’ve framed independently from anyone else.

Infants learn from others by observing how they do things and try to copy what they do. Youngsters watch their parents and others, then mirror their activities. As they grow, they learn that making a clamor can get them the attention they need. That early mental model becomes more sophisticated as they mature.

A series of things that we perceive shapes our mental models. If we keep observing an object over time, we may notice variations. Every time we attempt to make an inference, different outcomes might shift in importance. We can break down a mental model to build another one.


2: Immersive Experience

Once users have formed a mental model, they will often reject and experience that does not accord with that model.

An immersive experience is one in which a user is totally caught up in a system. If the experience is a positive one, the user’s satisfaction may reach new heights. Immersive experiences stimulate our senses. For example, audiences sometimes cry while watching an intensely emotional scene in a movie or a TV show.

Having an immersive experience does not on its own let users form a mental model—though it may give them a higher level of fulfillment than those they’ve had before. However, when users compare and contrast that experience with a set of past experiences, they begin to visualize what an experience ought to be—to create a mental model. Once users have formed a mental model, they will often reject an experience that does not accord with that model.

Let’s again consider the movie experience. What makes watching films in a theater such an exciting proposition is a blend of sound, high-resolution imagery on a huge screen, the dimness of the room, a bin of popcorn, reclining seats—all of which create an ambiance that we do not feel anywhere else. At such moments, our physical self-awareness is altered, and we experience a world that exists only in our mind. Once the movie ends, we briefly feel disconnected from reality. The film evoked emotions, while our physical state remained unchanged. This impression lasts for some time.



Lastly, the honest truth is users do not want to understand how your product works, they just want it to work. In any case, simple user testing is certainly the first step to take if you suspect that erroneous mental models are costing  business.

Understanding mental models lets us shape positive, engaging user experiences within the framework of the user’s mental model. As designers, we know that the user’s mental model will often differ from our own. Whatever gap exists between our mental model and that of the user results in slower performance, blunders, user disappointment, and even disengagement. To avoid these negative experience outcomes, we must understand the mental models of the users for whom we’re designing a product or service.