Mental Models are conscious or unconscious psychological representations of situations users encounter. These could be hypothetical, real or fictional and lead users to expect certain results and make them behave in certain ways.
As designers we love to come up with great interactions. We have our own mental models of how our systems work and it all makes sense in our heads. The problem arises when we fail to acknowledge or understand that the user has their own mental model when they arrive at a website. You may have heard about Jakob's Law of Internet User Experience. It states that users spend more of their time on sites other than yours. This means that they have a mental model of how certain interactions take place because they have been influenced by other websites. Sites like Facebook, Google, Twitter and your direct and indirect competition's websites have already influenced them before they arrive at yours. Users expect your site to behave like those other sites. Of course this doesn't mean you copy Facebook or Google. You do need to make sure you are matching the user's mental models closely to prevent errors or even goal abandonment.
Scott McDaniel, a user centered designer, has a great way of explaining the concept of mental models in an article on Boxes and Arrows:
"How, then, do you tell people in other disciplines, such as managers or developers, what they are? I often use examples to convey what a mental model is. If I tell them that I recently ordered a steak at a restaurant, they might assume that I was met at the door by a host or hostess, seated, and presented with a menu. They assume these details, and others, that I never actually mentioned because they have a mental model of how restaurants operate. To illustrate the consequences of having a mismatched mental model, I describe a person who goes into a buffet restaurant and waits for someone to take their order. The person’s mental model of how that restaurant operates doesn’t match the actual situation, and he would experience confusion and frustration until he modified his original model to include buffets."
Mental models should be identified at the user research phase of the project so that it can be matched to the target mental model which will be created. Card sorting is a great way to uncover what users expect and where they expect certain things to be.
Ways to represent mental models:
- If you are designing a physical product you can use an image
- If you are analyzing a process you can use a script
- By a set of assumptions
- By using a specific set of vocabulary
Identify your direct, indirect and analogous competitors
A quick way to understand your users mental modes is to identify your direct, indirect and analogous competitors. This will help you identify what expectations your users will have when they arrive at your site.
It is easy to fall in the trap of thinking that your design is great since the designers, developers, and the CEO understands it. Take the time to find out what your users expect by understanding their mental models. This will help create a better experience for your users and improve your company's bottom line.
Do you have any tips for identifying user mental models? Let me know.