Mental Models: How to Think to Create a Great User Experience

Neha Sandikar
Dec 3 · 3 min read

Designing something with a great user experience requires to understand first what a user wants to get done. For this you need to understand the user’s goals, thought processes and the procedures she/he follows to accomplish those goals. Each user would have a different mental model so it’s about what users think about how something works.

Mental models help to shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.

Designing the mental model of users

Individual users each have their own mental models, and different users may construct different models of the same user interface. Further, one of usability’s big dilemmas is the common gap between the designers’ and users’ mental models. — Jacob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group.

One of the major reasons why products fail is because there is a wide gap between the conceptual model (mental model of the designer) and mental model of the end user. To overcome this, it’s essential that designers understand the users’ model to design something that works in the real world.

Designing an intuitive user experience is making sure that the conceptual model of your product matches, as much as possible, the mental models of your users. If you get that right you will have created a positive and useful user experience.

Designing conceptual model — A conceptual model that will fit in to the user’s mental model you can opt almost everything we do during a user-centered design process e.g interface design, iterations, validation testing, etc.

Understanding the users’ mental models— You can create multiple mental models of different users within user-centered design process with task analysis, observations, interviews etc.

What is a mental model in interface design?

In the field of user interface design, a mental model refers to the representation of something — the real world, a process, a device, software, etc. — that the user has in mind.

Users create mental models very quickly, often before they even use the software or device.

Users’ mental models come from -

  1. User’s previous experiences with similar applications or devices
  2. Assumptions they have
  3. Things they’ve heard others say
  4. From their direct experience with the product or device

Usability testing and other Research methods help reveal discordance between the designed experience and users’ mental models. Furthermore, gaps between mental models can be improved with interactive tours, careful onboarding, real-time feedback, and/or signifiers to assist in learning new product features and a new UI.

Key Takeaways

  • Determine users’ existing mental models through user and competitor research.
  • Mental models are built in a user’s brain and are based on what they know from past interactions with websites, mobile phones, and other interactive products.
  • UX designers can use mental models to develop designs that will make sense to users.
  • New usability innovations should be introduced sparingly.
  • If a mismatch exists between users’ mental models and a product’s UX, it will result in mistakes and user frustration.
  • If a mismatch exists between users’ mental models and a new UI, change the system to conform to users’ mental models or, if that’s not possible or desired, include instructions, tutorials, and demos to educate users about how the system works.

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