100 Things You Should Know About People: #52: People Create Mental Models

Person thinking about a book


Imagine that you’ve never seen an iPad, but I’ve just handed one to you and told you that you can read books on it. Before you turn on the iPad, before you use it, you have a model in your head of what reading a book on the iPad will be like. You have assumptions about what the book will look like on the screen, what things you will be able to do, and how you will do them—things like turning a page, or using a bookmark. You have a “mental model” of reading a book on the iPad, even if you’ve never done it before. If you’ve used an iPad before, your mental model of reading a book on an iPad will be different than that of someone who has never used one, or doesn’t even know what an iPad is. If you’ve been using a Kindle for the past year, then your mental model will be different from someone who has never read a book electronically. And once you get the iPad and read a couple of books on it, whichever mental model you had in your head before will start to change and adjust to reflect your experience.

What is a mental model? – The term mental model has been around for at least the last 25 years. One of my favorite definitions is from Susan Carey’s 1986 journal article, “Cognitive science and science education”, which says:

“A mental model represents a person’s thought process for how something works (i.e., a person’s understanding of the surrounding world). Mental models are based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions. They help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.”

Users create mental models very quickly — often before they even use a website or a product. Users’ mental models come from their prior experience with similar sites or products, assumptions they have, things they’ve heard others say, and also from their direct experience with the product or device. Mental models are subject to change.

Mental models vs. conceptual models – In order to understand why mental models are so important to design, you have to also understand what a conceptual model is and how it is different from a mental model. A mental model is the representation that a person has in their minds about the object they are interacting with. A conceptual model is the actual model that is given to the person through the design and interface of the actual product. Going back to the iPad ebook example, you have a mental model about what reading a book will be like in the iPad, how it will work, what you can do with it. But when you sit down with the iPad, the “system” (the iPad) will display what the conceptual model of the book app actually is. There will be screens, and buttons, and things that happen. The actual interface is the conceptual model. Someone designed an interface and that interface is communicating to you the conceptual model of the product.

Why care about this mental model/conceptual model idea? –Here’s why you should care: If there is a mismatch, between the person’s mental model and the product’s conceptual model, then the product or website will be hard to learn, hard to use, or not accepted. How do mismatches occur? Here are some examples:

  • The designers thought they knew who would be using the interface and how much experience they had with interfaces like this, and they designed according to those assumptions without testing them, and it turns out their assumptions were wrong.
  • The audience or the product or website is varied. The designers designed for one “persona” or type of audience, and the mental model and conceptual model match for that group, but not for others.
  • There are no real designers. The conceptual model wasn’t really designed at all, It’s just a reflection of the underlying hardware or software or database. So the only people whose mental model it fits are the programmers. If the audience is not the programmers then you are in trouble.

What if the mental models the users have won’t work? — What if it’s a brand new concept and you don’t want to match the current mental model? — What about the idea that people who have only read real, physical books will not have an accurate mental model of reading books on the iPad? In this case you know that people will not have an accurate mental model that fits. You will need to change their mental model. The best way to change a mental model is through training. You can use a short training video to change the mental model before the iPad even arrives at their door. In fact, one of the best purposes of training on a new product is to adjust the audiences’ mental model to fit the conceptual model of the product.

A different use of the term – By the way, the way I’m using the term mental model is, I believe, the most common definition, but it does not fit with at least one of the new definitions I’ve been reading and hearing about lately. Indi Young has written a book called Mental Models, and she’s using the term in a different way. She diagrams the behavior of a particular audience doing a series of tasks, including their goals and motivations. Then underneath that she describes what the “system” or product will do, or be like, in order to match the task. This entire structure she calls a “mental model.” Her methodology and its output look useful, but it doesn’t match the definition of mental models that I’m using here.

The Best Designers – a) understand the mental models of the intended audience (with task analysis, observations, interviews, etc), and  b) design a conceptual model to fit the audience’s mental model, or a design a new one and know how to get us to switch from old to new.

Take Aways:

  • People always have a mental model, and it often doesn’t match what the conceptual model that someone designed (or forgot to design!).
  • The secret to designing an intuitive and delightful product experience is making sure that the conceptual model of the product matches, as much as possible, the mental models of your audience.
  • If you have a brand new product that you know will not match anyone’s mental model then you will have to provide training to prepare the person to create a new mental model.
  • If you are struggling to learn how to use a new website, software or device, it might be because you are holding on to an old mental model that doesn’t work anymore. Try letting it go and looking at the product without so many assumptions about how it works.

What do you think? What products have you had a hard time with because your mental model didn’t match the conceptual model? If you are a designer, what do you do to try and get a better match?

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in conceptual models, design, mental model
10 comments on “100 Things You Should Know About People: #52: People Create Mental Models
  1. Andrea vit says:

    Great post!
    Do you think that it’s important to define mental models only by the correct definition of the personas? Could you please suggest other useful and important tasks?

  2. Susan Weinschenk says:

    Hi Andrea,

    Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure I understand your question. See if this is what you were looking for: There are several ways to understand the users mental models, and which method you employ depends on lots of things… your access to users, your time and budget constraints, as well as how complex the subject domain is etc. Personas may tell you what you need, IF they include info on the domain you are talking about… for example, if you want to know about mental models around book reading, do the personas include that? Often the personas don’t have enough info, so then you have to do more user research. The best way to do that would be to do interviews with users and ask them questions about the domain, and questions so that you can create a task analysis, and/or observe users doing the tasks you are interested. If you are astute you can also ascertain some mental model information by doing a usability test and watching and listening while people interact with a product, software or app.

    Is that what you were asking about?

  3. Andrea vit says:

    Hi Susan,
    Sorry for my not perfect English, i’m working to make it better :-)
    Thanks a lot for your reply.
    The reply is what i was looking for.
    I think that another cheap way to test if conceptual model match with mental model is a good analysis of traffic data coming from web analytics tools like omniture or google analytics.
    For example if you expect that the conceptual model should drive users to’ a particular navigation path, you should try to see if data confirm tour assumptions.
    Most web agency are afraid of test their works because they are focused on hide their errors instead of increasing the performances of websites.
    I hope

  4. Jakob says:

    The explanation is compelling enough to warrant people acting on it. At least I hope that’s not wishful thinking and we will see more well designed stuff in the future.

    I wonder how the disparity between academia and practicioners in the design field is shaping up currently. These two do not necessarily go together as one example from a different field might illustrate: Football coaches are very reluctant to change the methods that have worked for them in the past. So when some young hot shot scientist comes along and tells them about how they could better prepare their players for the endurance test that is a football match, they are very likely to shrug off the advice. Only recently, when younger coaches replaced a couple of well known old faces did science actually make its way into coaching, when new methods were tried and proven successful. Under competetive pressure every body picked up a bit of the new influence.

    Is the situation in product design similar?

  5. You’ve got great insights about mental coaching, keep up the good work!

  6. Gregory says:

    Hi, I have looked through the Carey’s article and it doesn’t contain text you mentioned. Where is the definition of mental model you published from?

    • admin says:

      Hi Gregory,

      You have really uncovered a mystery! I went back through the article too, and indeed you are right. I can’t find that text in there at all. I must have gotten the wrong document. I wrote to Dr. Susan Carey and asked her, and she said that it sounds like something she would say, but she has no idea where she might have said it!! So I will continue to see where I can find it, and when I find it I’ll repost here.

  7. Omar says:

    Hi Susan,
    I am interested in knowing more about mental models and conceptual models. I think this is a key concept which can be a tremendous help for solving all sorts of disagreements and disputes that we come across in life , for exmaple when the mental models of different people do not align, problems arise. I know there is a plethora of literature on pyschology and I have also been through your recommended list of psychology books but I am not sure which one would give me the most comprehensive coverage for what I am looking for. Please do reccmommend a title.
    I am very enlightened by your posts. I stumbled here by chance but your posts on GUI design and Human Computer Interaction are very informative!
    Best

  8. Susan says:

    Thanks for your comments Omar. I don’t know that I can point you to any books that talk about the topic in depth from a psychological perspective. Does anyone else out there reading this know of any?

    • Hello! :)
      It has been a long time since the last comment… but here it goes:

      If you want to go to the “origins” of the research on the concept of mental models you can check The Nature of Explanation, by Scottish psychologist K. J. W. Craik (1943).
      Then, in 1983, two important books, both named “Mental Models” were published. One by Gentner and Stevens, and another one by Johnson-Laird.
      Johnson-Laird and John Wilson (who is Professor of Human Factors at the University of Nottingham) have both really nice papers and essay on the matter.

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I'm a Ph.D. psychologist and I write and videoblog about how to apply psychology and brain science research to understand how people think, work, and behave. For more information about me and about the Weinschenk Institute, check out the the Team W website.

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.
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