Mental Models - why user expectations drive their behaviour
Updated 1 June 2023
Ignoring psychology creates bad user experiences. Look at doors for example. Ever seen a door that suggests pushing should work, when in fact pulling is required (or the other way around)?
It's not just you, bad doors (and designs) are everywhere. Take a look at this video.
What are Mental Models?
Mental models are frameworks that individuals use to understand and interpret information about the world around them. They are our cognitive constructs that help make sense of complex situations and provide a basis for decision-making and problem-solving.
Mental models are based on an individual's experiences, beliefs, values, and assumptions. They can be conscious or unconscious and can be influenced by factors such as gaining new experiences, receiving new information, or encountering situations that challenge existing mental models.
We have Mental Models for everything. They help us to understand economies, science, maths, psychology, society, and everything in between.
Whilst there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of Mental Models, here are a few common ones that you might have heard about before:
Cause and Effect: The idea that there is a relationship between events or actions, where one event causes another event to happen.
Occam’s Razor: The principle that when there are multiple explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one is usually the correct one.
Game Theory: The study of strategic decision-making in situations where two or more individuals (or groups) are competing or cooperating.
Confirmation Bias: The predisposition to search for, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms a pre-existing belief or hypothesis.
Cognitive Dissonance: The mental pain/ache that arises when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or ideas.
Anchoring: The tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information encountered when making decisions.
Social Proof: The tendency to follow 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.
Long story short, Mental Models are how people think something works. But the real world doesn’t always work the way our mental models do.
What happens when Mental Models don’t align with how something actually works?
When mental models don't align with how something actually works, individuals will experience confusion, frustration, and difficulty in decision-making and problem-solving.
Users will need to adjust their mental models to align with new information or experiences. Or they may resist changing their mental models, leading to confirmation bias and hindering effective decision-making and problem-solving. If a user can avoid this, then they will which means we need to educate users how to adjust….Or better yet, adjust the product/system will evolve instead.
Let’s take a look at a quick example.
Initially, the URL bar at the top of the Google browser was intended for entering a full domain and taking the user straight to the site in question.
However, Google quickly noticed that many people expected it to function the exact same way as a search bar, and only veteran internet users realized the difference. Due to this, they decided it was best to cater to the mass user mental model.
Google gave the URL bar the same functionalities as the search bar and even added in the magnifying glass search icon, something typical of search bars all over the web. It still maintains the same function as the old URL bar, by taking users directly to site domains, but also can display lists of search results in the same way as the search bar.
Why Are Mental Models Important in UX Design?
Mental models are important in UX (User Experience) design because they help designers to create products that are more intuitive, user-friendly, and effective.
Here are some of the reasons why mental models are important in User Experience (UX) design:
Match user expectations: Mental models help designers to understand the assumptions, expectations, and existing knowledge of users. By designing products that match the user's mental model, designers can create products that are more intuitive and easier to use.
Reduce cognitive load: When a product matches a user's mental model, it reduces the cognitive load required to use the product. Users can rely on their existing knowledge and assumptions to understand how the product works, which makes the product easier to use and reduces frustration.
Improve usability: Mental models help designers to create products that are more usable and effective. By understanding the mental models of their users, designers can create products that are easier to learn, remember, and use.
Increase user satisfaction: When a product matches a user's mental model, it can lead to increased user satisfaction. Users feel more confident and in control when using a product that matches their mental model, which can lead to greater satisfaction and loyalty.
Reduce errors and mistakes: When a product matches a user's mental model, it can reduce the likelihood of errors and mistakes. Users are less likely to make mistakes when using a product that matches their mental model, which can improve their productivity and overall experience.
Overall, mental models are important in UX design because they help designers to create products that meet the needs and expectations of their users. By understanding the mental models of their users, designers can create products that are more intuitive, user-friendly, and effective, which can lead to greater satisfaction and success.
Applying mental models in UX Design
Let's say the UX designer is designing a mobile app for a grocery store. The designer wants to create an app that is easy to use and helps users to find the products they need quickly and efficiently. To do this, the designer might use the following mental model:
Interface model: The designer might use an interface model that is similar to other mobile apps that users are already familiar with, such as social media apps or messaging apps. By using a familiar interface model, the designer can create an app that is easy to navigate and requires minimal instruction.
Task model: The designer might use a task model that breaks down the process of finding and purchasing products into simple and clear steps. For example, the task model might include steps such as searching for a product, adding it to a shopping cart, and checking out.
Information model: The designer might use an information model that organizes products by categories, such as produce, dairy, and meat. By organizing products in a way that matches the user's mental model, the designer can create an app that is easy to navigate and helps users find what they need quickly, in the terminology they understand.
Mental model diagrams: The designer might use mental model diagrams to gain insights into how users think and behave when shopping for groceries. For example, the designer might create a diagram that shows how users prioritize certain categories of products, or how they make decisions about which brand to choose.
Persona models: The designer might use persona models to better understand the needs and preferences of their target users. For example, the designer might create a persona model that represents a busy parent who needs to shop quickly and efficiently.
By using these mental models, the UX designer can create a mobile app that matches the user's mental model and helps them to accomplish their goals more efficiently. The app is easy to use, requires minimal instruction, and helps users to find the products they need quickly and efficiently. This can lead to greater user satisfaction and increased usage of the app.
Better mental models = better decisions = better results.
Working with a UX designer who has a good handle on mental models is beneficial for several reasons:
Expertise in user research: UX designers are skilled in conducting user research and gathering insights about user behavior and preferences. They can use this expertise to create accurate and detailed mental models that match the needs and expectations of the target users.
Understanding of design principles: UX designers have a deep understanding of design principles and can use this knowledge to create effective designs that match the user's mental model. They can identify the most important elements of the design and prioritize them to create a clear and intuitive interface.
Ability to prototype and test designs: UX designers can create prototypes and test designs with users to ensure that they match the user's mental model and are effective in achieving the desired goals. This iterative process can help to refine the mental model and create a product that matches the needs of the target users.
Collaboration with stakeholders: UX designers can work closely with stakeholders, including product managers, developers, and marketers, to ensure that the mental model is aligned with the overall goals and objectives of the product.
At Honest Fox, our UX Designers are well-versed in the mental models and methods that apply to digital products and systems. We do this to ensure that the design is user-centered, effective, and aligned with the overall goals of the project (and the business as a whole). By creating a product that matches the user's mental model, we create better user experiences with increased user engagement and overall satisfaction.