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What Do Mental Models Mean for User Experience?

In 2017, some designers and developers on Reddit decided to have an interesting challenge: Who will design the worst volume sliders in the world? Even though these sliders, (well some of them were not even sliders), were created for humor, the possibility of them becoming real might first surprise us and then give us a headache.

reddit-mental-model
Image: Reddit, TechCrunch

How do we know what a volume slider should look like? Why can’t we accept new sliders easily? UX designers’ challenge on Reddit is actually experimentation with mental models. And the answer to the questions above (apart from the obvious answer about how they aren’t usable) lies in our mental models!

What Is a Mental Model?

The mental model is a psychological concept dating back to the mid-20th century. In general, it describes how people perceive and make sense of the world around them. In other words, a mental model represents a way of thinking about reality. 

Since psychology has close relations with many other fields, the concept of mental model earned an interdisciplinary character. Charlie Munger has used mental models to understand business decisions and investment processes. Shane Parrish, the author of a mental models book published by Farnam Street, defined it as “a representation of how something works.” 

It wouldn’t be effective to evaluate every single encounter from scratch and by itself, make a decision based on this evaluation, and act only at the end of these processes. Therefore, our brains have these models as a guide about how to respond in a certain situation. 

What Do Mental Models Mean in UX?

In the user experience (UX) design context, Jakob Nielsen from Normal Nielsen Group explains a mental model as “what the user believes about the system at hand.” This definition of a mental model points out that users come to an app thinking they know or at least have an idea about how to use it. 

According to Nielsen’s description, mental models are based on beliefs, instead of facts. Then, how do these users form these beliefs? This is where you should consider another point stated by Dr. Nielsen and known as Jakob’s law of internet user experience. 

Jakob’s law states that;

Users spend most of their time on websites other than yours. When people get their cumulative experience of all these other websites that adds up to their understanding of how a website should work and what the design conventions are on the web ” 

In other words, they expect to see something similar to what they have experienced elsewhere when they visited your website. Although Nielsen’s approach is mostly based on websites, there is no reason to think about mobile apps with such a perspective. 

Why Are Mental Models Important for UX Design?

mental-model-ux

For UX, mental models should have utmost significance. Since mental models are directly related to how people tend to behave in specific circumstances, they should be an important part of UX design. If you know which mental models users have built before installing your app, you can make the app intuitive and familiar to them. In other words, a good understanding of mental models is the key to achieve user-friendliness. 

A big part of the users’ mental model for your app comes from their experiences on other apps, websites, or the actual world. Users transfer their expectations from one familiar product to another. 

For example, when users download a texting app, they know how the button for sending images or attaching documents looks like. Or they know that clicking on the magnifying glass and typing a will word work for making a search on the app. When there is a mismatch between what they are expecting from an app and how it actually works, users might abandon your app, decide to delete it.

User Personas: A Crucial Part of Working with Mental Models

The biggest challenge in using mental models for an intuitive UX design is the differences between user segments. The experience accumulated while using various devices and apps might differ from person to person. Digital literacy of people might change especially in different age groups. 

The critical point, here, is developing a user segmentation strategy that is flexible enough to avoid overarching generalizations but strict enough to define several categories. A genuine understanding of the expectations and experiences of different user segments can be the only way for success in user experience design. 

Testing New Ideas: Let Your Users Guide You About What They Expect

Designers might have some conceptual models in their minds, basically the models that the designers want the end-users to understand. These might seem perfect; however, designers may fail to create a pleasant user experience model. 

The reason lies in the difference between what user personas would expect and what a UX designer in the shoes of a user does expect. Being in the field requires knowing all the details about the buttons and search bars, functionalities and possibilities. Yet, this cannot be the case for a regular user in any universe. In general, users’ mental models of the interfaces are a lot less advanced than of designers, which results in a case where users find it difficult to use an app, make mistakes, and get confused. 

However, this does not mean that we should limit ourselves to what is already out there. If it were the case, we would not be able to see any change or progress. Mental models are in flux. New experiences result in new mental models. But this process requires comprehensive testing processes.

user-mental-model
Image: User Inyerface, A challenging exploration of user interactions

If you improve the existing mental models in UX and use familiarity in your app, users can focus on completing the task rather than learning how to complete the task. 

Imagine popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. What kind of familiar features can you detect when you switch apps? Likes, comments, stories, feed… With minor variations, apps adapt, and mirror features. As one of the pioneers, Facebook’s design has affected many other apps in design features such as notification icons. Our eyes are used to looking for them on the right top corner. There are many more elements users are using without thinking about it. Even if your app is very new to your users, familiar elements that are corresponding to users’ mental models will let users navigate your app easily.

Skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism describes interface objects mirroring real-world counterparts in how they appear and/or how the user can interact with them. Look at the trash can on your computer and look at the trash can in your room. You can put the things that you don’t want in both of them. Many things you see in the digital world have a reference to a real-world counterpart. This skeuomorphic approach aims to make the design more compatible with users’ mental models. In other words, skeuomorphism highlights the importance of mental models in the interface design. 

What do mental models mean for user experience?
Image: Creative Can, Example of skeuomorphism

Acting on Mental Models for Success

Recognizing mental models can help you improve the problems in your design. If you see people are making mistakes on your app, the cause might be their mental models. There are two things to do in this case:

  • You can change the interface according to the mental model of the users (you will have to assume that your target users have similar mental models). If they are looking for a button in the wrong place, put the button where they are looking for. Card sorting, user interviews, surveys, feedback, and competitor research can help you understand users’ mental models and you can take action accordingly.
  • You can improve users’ mental models with better onboarding, better and clearer explanations, and labels. If you are planning to change some features in your app, you can do them slowly to prepare your users mentally.

Understanding and researching the mental models of your app’s users is very important to create new features and refine the existing ones. Using familiar elements to help your users to jump on intended actions improves both your business and the experience of the user. Finding a balance between innovative and familiar is sometimes challenging and easy to ignore, but make sure that you always keeping mental models in front to bring the best user experience.

Thanks to Snapchat and Instagram culture, users know what to do when they see a small circle in the app! They click on them and discover the stories. Check out with Storyly how stories correspond to the mental models of your users!

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