Mental Models and Context

Originally published at my Wordpress Blog.

Imagine two scenarios. Two mothers.

Mother one — when it’s time for her one year old son to go to sleep, she gets him ready and rocks him to sleep. As the baby starts to drift off to sleep, she puts him in his crib. She gently rubs his back while he is still in light sleep, leaving only when he has fallen into deep sleep.

Mother two — when it’s time for her one year old son to go to sleep, she gets him ready to sleep and reads him a book. Then she kisses him good night and puts him in his crib. The son complains, and the mother says some soothing words. She sings him a song. But then she leaves the room wishing her son a final Good Night. The son might complain a little, but very soon he starts talking to his stuffed animals, and singing. After about 20 minutes, he is fast asleep.

Question to you: Which mother is doing the right thing?

Your answer might depend completely on your mental model, which is shaped by the context in which you live.

If you have grown up in a joint family, where there are plenty of people to take care of the child, then option 1 sounds wonderful. You are showing all the love and support to the kid. Why not do that?

If you have grown up in a nuclear family, then option 2 sounds great! There are other things to be done, and besides, aren’t we teaching our kids to be independent from n earlier age?

I came across this situation on my tip to India. And the funny thing is that the parents on either side were fascinated by how the other side handled things. My wife and I were amazed at the patience shown in taking care of kids (me less so since I grew up in India). On the other hand we got regular questions like — ‘Oh did your son sleep so fast?’ ‘No, but he will on his own’ — our reply. ‘Oh wow, its amazing that your kids can do that at such an early age’

How does this affect products?

This is a blog about product management. Why am I going on and on about mothers and kids and fathers and sleep and diapers? There are two important aspects that are highlighted here which we tend to overlook — mental models and context

A mental model can be thought of as a filter one applies to the actual truth. It takes the overwhelming complexity of what is going on in the real world and makes sense out of it. It would totally ignore several inputs, and highly bias other inputs based on past experience, deeply held beliefs and what else is going on in the person’s life. I am calling this ‘what else is going on in the person’s life’ as the context in which the mental model is working.

Let’s look at some examples of where mental model and context changes the situation completely.

Wheels on bags

One of the most fascinating product stories for me is very simple — wheels on luggage. The first fascinating part: wheeled luggage was introduced in 1970. Decades after luggage was introduced. Why so? Well the initial context was different — people did not have to walk through large airports carrying heavy bags with them. Trains were more popular than planes, there were lots of porters that could carry bags for people etc.

Then the context changed. Airplanes became more popular, requiring people to carry heavy bags across much larger distances with fewer porters. Yet for a long time people carried on with the previous mental models — bags are meant to be carried.

Even after wheeled luggage was introduced it did not immediately pick up popularity. People stuck to their old mental models — especially men. Men saw themselves as strong, macho guys who did not need wheels to help with bags. Things really changed only after TravelPro introduced rollaboards that became popular with flight crews. These role models ultimately led to mass adoption of wheeled luggage.

Hence such a ‘simple invention’ — putting a freakin wheel on a bag — took so long to gain acceptance.

What is the right meal for me?

One of the best examples I have heard of is from Des Traynor in his talk Product Strategy in a growing company. He takes a simple question — what is the right food for a male 35 years old who works in tech?

The context of consumption changes everything. Without understanding the context you cannot answer it. Example — what if this person is going out on a date who he really, really likes to impress? Likely a meal that gives him plenty of time to chat over (likely) alcohol is a good idea. Steak might be optimal. But what if the context is — oh this person needs to eat while working on a presentation for a client due in 1 hour. He cannot waste time, has to multi-task. Pizza delivered to his deck sounds like a much better idea.


I would argue that one of the biggest determinants on how fast a company will grow is how much the product, marketing and sales of a company aligns with the mental model and context of the user. Anything that makes users have to change either is a speed bump.

There is a lot of software companies now selling predictive apps — applications that can make judgement based on predictive analytics, that are promised to be better, faster or cheaper than human judgement. I used to work for one. A roadblock is making the end user believe that the application is indeed better than their own judgement. We are all inclined to believe apps that predict things we know less about. Take the weather for example. Predictive models have been used for while — we tend to use them rather than looking at the sky and determining how the weather will be this afternoon. However for other purposes not so much. For example, predictive applications in sales — sales people tend to be skeptical that analytics can tell them what their accounts are likely to buy more than they would themselves, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Final words

Context and your user’s mental models changes everything. Understand them well — ignore at your own risk :)