What Do Mental Models Mean for User Experience?


In 2017, some designers on Reddit decided to design the worst volume sliders. Although these sliders, (well some of them were not even sliders), were made for humor, the possibility of them coming true might first surprise us and then give a headache.

What do mental models mean for user experience?
Image: Reddit, TechCrunch

How do we know what a volume slider should look like and why can’t we accept new sliders easily? The answer (apart from the obvious answer about how they aren’t usable) lies in our mental models!

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. It means that users come to your app thinking they know how to use it, or at least they have an idea of how to use it. Although mental models come from beliefs, not from facts; it is important to keep in mind that they have a close relationship with reality since they might be based on experiences and could affect future actions on your app.

“A mental model is what the user believes about the system at hand.“

So why are mental models valuable for UX design? Simply because knowing which mental models users have built before entering your app, will give you an idea of what the users expect from your app. 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. 

“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 ”  

When users download a texting app, they know how the button for sending images or attaching documents looks like. They know that if they want to search within the app, they should click on the magnifying glass and type in what they are looking for. When there is a mismatch between what they are expecting from how this app works and how it actually works, users might abandon your app, decide to delete it.

Although conceptual models, basically the models that the designers want the end-users to understand, might seem perfect, designers may fail to create a pleasant user experience. Because they know more than users, they may think that the features are easy to understand and use. But 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 your app, make mistakes, and get confused. This doesn’t mean that UX designers shouldn’t come up with innovative solutions. Mental models are in flux. New experiences result in new mental models. But this process requires attention since this may frustrate the users and distort the user experience.

What do mental models mean for user experience?
Image: User Inyerface, A challenging exploration of user interactions

If you improve the existing mental models and use familiarity in your app, users can focus on completing the task 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 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. Trash can on your computer implies that you can put things you don’t want in it. Many things you see in the digital world have a reference to a real-world counterpart.

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

Acting on Mental Models

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 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 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 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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