How do mental models and usability stack up with each other?

Think. Why do you push a door when it supposed to be pulled? Or why do we struggle with the knobs in our hotel bathrooms? Or why is it so hard to understand the controls on a microwave? Although these products are intended to make our lives easier and simple, they fail to do so. And that’s not all. On top of that most of the times when such mishaps happen, we feel terrible and foolish and end up blaming ourselves for it.

Caution: This is not a failure of the user but huge failure for the designer.

This is when disaster strikes and products although started with a good intention fail to connect with their audience. So the question is why is it so important to make users feel good about systems around them, because sooner or later they would learn to use it.

Before we deep dive into the topic let me take a few minutes to quickly define certain words that make up the title and would be used in the due course of the article.

Mental Models: Mental models are basically perceptions that you hold about any object, living or non-living before encountering it. Say for example think of an image when I say racing car and see what comes to your mind. That image might be based on your previous encounters or may be your imagination. This image that you have in your mind is called perception.

Usability: Usability can be roughly defined as efficiency of a system against a goal. It’s a measure of usefulness of any system or product. A crude example can be a scissor that allows people to quickly learn and perform the task as expected.

How do these both stack up against each other? If I had to connect in mathematical terms then I would go ahead and say that mental model is directly proportional to the usability of any system. Which means if my mental model is close to my actual experience then usability of that system is high.

How to design systems to score high on usability and stay close to mental models?

It’s always important to understand the users standpoint to be able to make a system successfully intervene in their lives. This means that the first step towards building efficient system is to understand your users and their cognitive abilities. Good systems are the ones that leverage existing cognitive knowledge of the users and build upon them to provide solutions.

To give you a simple example try out this simple exercise. Pick up a pencil and try writing your name such that when you put it up against a mirror it spells right. You would notice few things that bring us closer to understanding how people behave or think.

Here are steps that typically go in your mind:

  • You would first think about your name and separate out letters in your head
  • After that you start focusing on the formation of each letter and try reversing it in your head
  • Once you start writing it, you would notice that you are slower than normal and it almost feels like sketching than fluent writing

This exercise helps us quickly understand that before the users carry out any action they try imagining the outcome in their brain and then operate accordingly to complete their task. This is typical of all users in all scenarios.

As a product innovator or a designer it’s important to stay close to your context and be observant of your users. This will help you get closer to your users mental models and behavioural patterns. This knowledge can help breakdown some your complex user journeys into simple steps resulting in a much more acceptable user interface.

There are two great tools to help us guide and evaluate our interfaces. These are affordance and semantics. So what does these to two mean how they help?

Affordance: Affordance is a physical property of any object or an element, which helps user decide on the action to perform such as press, pull, swipe etc. To give a real world example a peeking part of the content on a page provides affordance to be swiped or scrolled. While a rounded cornered bright red object provides affordance to be clicked.

Semantics: Semantics is the meaning any element acquires depending on the context in which it appears. This helps people to imagine and articulate their expectancy. For example a half cut picture on the edge of the screen would make people expect that they would see that in full when they would swipe once while a half cut textual content would mean that there is more to read. This helps people build up a mental model of the interface and build up expectancy.

If you get the above two correct it helps shoot up the usability of any product. User experience design relies heavily on context and existing strengths of the audience to deliver great products.

How to innovate if we always stick to existing mental models?

Innovation is not a factor of usability. An innovation in product need not violate usability principles to justify its presence. Newness in any scenario is a welcome change by the users provided it brings delight to the users and has been built on top of their existing cognitive strengths.

Lets take an example which probably each one of us would have experienced or at least witnessed sometime in our lifetime. Do you remember our old telephones where there used to be a circular dial to be able to dial numbers. If you study the model it was simple to use. It was easy to learn as the hole on the dial had a perfect affordance to help us guide our fingers in it and then rotate it till a predefined limit, which was marked by a physical barrier. A fairly easy system that was easy to use and easy to learn.

When technology graduated from mechanical systems to electronic circuit boards these dials became unnecessary and a complete new form of dialling, which was simply pressing buttons, replaced it. A great innovation of its time and in no time it replaced all our dials. How did that happen? The trick was that it didn’t break any mental model and yet was able to cut down on dialling time as well as reduce mechanical load. This brought delight to the users and hence acceptance was almost immediate.

A user interface is built up of primarily two parts. One is information that can be consumed and second is call to action elements that help in performing an activity based on the information provided. Depending on context (semantics) and its physical properties like shape, size and color (affordance) the user expects certain outcome when interacting with these elements and if it goes in their favor then there is a sense of achievement and delight in their experience. This ability to be able to impart delight to your users is termed as user experience design.

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